The Wichita stage production of The Wiz debuts at Roxy’s Downtown next week.
The show is based on the classical musical fantasy The Wizard of Oz, but with an all-black cast and an R&B and jazz score.
Starring as Dorothy — who dons silver, not ruby, slippers in this version of Oz — is East High graduate Jaslyn Alexander. She says her first encounter with the musical was watching the movie version as a young girl at her home in south Wichita.
“I was a kid and my grandma and my mom had me watch the Diana Ross version,” Alexander said. “They absolutely love her and they absolutely love Michael Jackson, so that was my first experience with it.”
The original production of The Wiz opened on Broadway in 1975. The movie was released in 1978 with an updated television special, The Wiz Live!, on NBC in 2015.
“It is shows like that that actually gave me the inspiration to say, ‘I can do this, I can perform,’” Alexander said.
And she's been performing professionally now for a decade. Wiz director Rick Bumgardner says Alexander is an actress who approaches everything through an innocent eye of wonderment.
“I love that about her,” Bumgardner said. “I think that she encapsulates Dorothy’s belief system, and even though she may have questions about it, it’s that belief system inside her that draws her toward her journey. That’s Jaslyn.”
Musical director Huron Breaux — who also plays the Tin Man in the show — says he fell in love with Alexander “the moment I first heard her voice.”
“She’s just free, so phenomenal, so innocent in her sound and her presentation,” Breaux said. “It’s going to be a show stopper.”
Twenty-five-year-old Alexander says she thinks she brings a childlike wonder to the character of Dorothy.
“I’ve always said I’ve never really grown up in my head,” Alexander said.
Wichita State student Lucas Lowry plays the dangling Scarecrow who joins Dorothy on her journey to the Emerald City.
“I feel so exuberant,” Lowry said. “I can express a lot of energy into the role and it’s one of my favorite roles I always wanted to play. I love Michael Jackson, so getting to interpret his character has been a blast.”
Alexander Ogburn agrees. The genial, 6-foot-5-inch actor from Hutchinson has played the role of the Cowardly Lion twice – once at the Cicely Tyson Arts Conservatory in New Jersey and now in Wichita. He says he love the lion’s mannerisms.
“I think I pretty much embody the lion in real life,” he said, “so that’s fun actually acting that out onstage.”
Huron Breaux says he’s blown away by all the talent in the cast.
“Man, all of the singers, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Lion, the Wiz, everybody is just at the top of their game vocally as well as their acting,” Breaux said. “It’s a stellar cast.”
Audiences can expect to be a part of the show, too — director Rick Bumgardner says the yellow brick road in The Wiz will extend down the center aisle at Roxy’s, and the cast will be performing along the sides.
“I love to bring the audience into the production and make them feel like they are part of production,” Bumgardner said.
It’s been 45 years since the musical debuted. While the original takes place in a version of New York City, Bumgardner says he wanted to make the local musical production more Wichita-centric and up to date.
“I wanted to make it relevant to today and to the citizens of Wichita,” he said. “It does take place in Kansas, after all.”
The scene setting features several different places in Wichita including McConnell Air Force Base, McAdams Park and Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport — which, in the musical’s universe, is Oz.
“Wichita is the Air Capital of the World,” Bumgardner said, “and so the whole symbiotic process to me is about the work it has taken these people in the show, but also the citizens of Wichita to find their courage, their brains, their heart, to maintain their home as the Air Capital of the World.”
Alexander says The Wiz production will be like no other.
“Definitely some high energy music, lots and lots and lots of glitter, lots of bright colors, and so much melanin,” she said. “Oh my goodness, it makes me so excited to see so many black people onstage."
Tony award nominee Karla Burns plays the wicked witch, Evillene, and is also the vocal director of The Wiz.
“It’s a brilliant opportunity to see so many African-American people on one stage in Wichita, Kansas,” she said. “And it’s a tribute to the voices, the sounds, the acting, the singing, to what we are capable of right here in Wichita.”
The Wiz opens Wednesday, Feb. 5, at Roxy’s Downtown.