The Kelly Critics is a joint program of the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh CLO's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musicals, in which students at Kelly schools review musicals at other Kelly schools.
Just like cell phones, televisions, and cars, high school musicals have become more excessive, elaborate, and expensive. While many of these productions are excellent, the possible $100,000 price tag that includes professional choreographers and directors can overshadow the innate uniqueness and creativity that blooms from a production done by high school students.
For Pittsburgh Barack Obama Academy, the fix to less funding for their production of “The Wiz” was simple: have students and alumni direct, choreograph, re-write, adapt, and execute, to allow the beauty, passion, and dedication behind a top-tier high school production naturally reveal itself.
Since its pioneering Broadway debut in 1975, “The Wiz” has “funkified” the heartwarming L. Frank Baum story that was adapted into the classic 1939 film for almost four decades. The 1978 film of the same name had a $24 million dollar budget with an all-black cast that starred the likes of Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, and Michael Jackson, who all sang and danced to some new music written by the great Quincy Jones. Unlike the Broadway version that stuck to Baum’s Kansas roots, the blockbuster movie flipped the tale of Dorothy and her ruby red slippers into a witty disco-era extravaganza about a shy schoolteacher from Harlem trying to find her way back home in the peculiar and urbanized Land of Oz.
In a smart decision, Obama Academy opted for the 1975 Broadway stage version, in which the Land of Oz does not resemble a psychedelic version of the Big Apple, allowing the set to require a single backdrop. Before the audience met Dorothy (Tori Dorsett) and her Aunt Em (Azurai Phillips) and Uncle Henry (Joshua Scherrer), “The Wiz” opened with a 6-minute climaxing overture that gave a taste of the triumphant array of songs to follow. Although the show began a little bumpy, with the all-student band missing a few notes and the acting feeling a bit restrained, the beautiful harmonies of Phillips’ and Dorsett’s duet, “The Feeling We Once Had,” foreshadowed Dorsett’s captivating vocals in songs like “Soon as I Get Home” and “Home.”
Throughout the musical, the vocals were full of soul and animation, but Obama Academy really shined with their feet, dropping many jaws with their incredible moves in numbers like “Ease on Down the Road” and “Emerald City Ballet” that looked like the offspring of a Soul Train dance line and a Chris Brown music video.
Props go to choreographer Andre Rand-Mathis, a Schenley High School graduate, who created routines for Scarecrow (Imani Chisom) and Tinman (Marnie Quick) that vividly depicted the former as stylishly struggling to walk and the latter as moving his joints for the first time in years with a phenomenal tap dance number. Mathis really displayed his creativity and flair in the “Tornado Ballet,” in which a multitude of dancers in tight black clothing leaped, strutted, and jetéd in a front of a strobe light that created a hypnotizing visual for the audience while mimicking the unpredictability of a tornado.
In addition to the stirring vocals and exhilarating dancing, Obama Academy epitomized the hip hop concept of “ballin’ on a budget.” The strobe light was only one ingenious cost-effective prop. Others included the comedic cardboard iPad that the vivacious Addaperle (Kamera Dorsey) comically attempted to create a faux Siri, the disco globe that glistened in “Emerald City Ballet,” which was like a sophisticated, chic version of “Saturday Night Fever,” and the hilarious “Crime Watch” and “Drug Free Zone” street signs that the extremely talented Yellow Brick Road dancers of Aziaha Robinson and Taiquel Whatley carried at times while following Dorothy and her friends.
Even more than the innovative props, the musical’s interpretations of various scenes illustrated the ardent pride which the cast and their production staff obviously take in their musical and in their school. Small scene “remixes” like the step team break-out in the Baptist sermon-like “Y’all Got It,” the ode to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” in “A Rested Body,” and the entertaining “selfies” that Addaperle and company took during the reprise of “Believe in Yourself” displayed the cast’s pure enjoyment in transforming “The Wiz” into a Obama Academy production marked with the school’s wit, charm, and fervor.
Any high school out there who paid a six-digit check for their musicals this year should watch a performance of Obama Academy’s “The Wiz” because the success of a show should never be determined by the size of its budget but by the smiles, laughter, and pure joy it brings to its audience. As Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion all learn, the Obama Academy cast did not need credentials to assure themselves or the audience of the brains, heart, and courage that they bring to the expanding stage of high school musicals.
Reviews are edited by senior theater critic Christopher Rawson. For more high school musicals coverage, go to http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/ and scroll down.