ITHACA, N.Y. — The Tony Award-winning “The Wiz” eases down the road to Ithaca, where Running to Places’ (R2P) enthusiastic company goes all out in a collaboration with Circus Culture that will have audiences oohing and aahing and bopping in their seats. The show runs June 21-23 at the State Theatre of Ithaca.
The story is the familiar one: A tornado transports Dorothy (Ella Monroe) into the land of Oz, where she encounters good witches (Shyanne Lewis and Davina Barrett) and bad (Savannah Gonzalez) and acquires companions as confused about themselves as she is: the Scarecrow (Elsbeth O’Toole), the Tinman (Sirus Desnoes), and the Lion (Julianna Cuevas). The Wiz (Mwape Sokoni) – who is not what she seems – sends them on an impossible quest featuring flying monkeys, oppressed Winkies, and a well-aimed bucket of water.
“The story is about loving and learning to accept love from others,” says Joey Steinhagen, R2P artistic director. “That takes courage because if you open your heart to love, you risk getting it broken. But if you don’t do that, you never get to have the love part.”
Broadway’s “The Wiz” won seven Tony awards and had an all-Black cast. In recognition of that history, all the speaking roles in R2P’s production are played by actors of color.
“The show is a milestone in American Black culture and it was important that we honor that,” Steinhagen says. “When Black and Brown kids in the audience see themselves reflected on stage, it sends out a loud and clear invitation that there is a place for you in theatre and in R2P.”
Many of the circus elements included in the show also honor the African American connection, notes Steinhagen. “The Circus Culture team is making meaningful connections and using circus vocabulary that conveys meaning beyond just spectacle – though there is plenty of fun spectacle, too.” For example, in rehearsals the cast has taken inspiration from studying West African stilt dancing.
“Our setting in Oz produces the perfect context for creating a fantastical world via the circus arts,” says Amy Cohen, Circus Culture director.
Resident music director Jeremy Pletter says the songs “are the 1970s embodied. It includes the most beautiful ballads, incredible funk styles, African American styles from the 1970s, really all of the pop styles, including back-up singers and riffing reminiscent of Diane Ross and the Temptations. You can’t help moving when you listen to the music, it’s so fun: you catch yourself bopping to it.”
Choreographer Harmony Malone brings a special enthusiasm to the show, having played Addapearle in the Ithaca High School production years ago. “The choreography has lots of celebration,” she says. “I’ve added elements of hip hop, like walking and breaking, and elements of voguing and tutting. Be ready to dance with us!”
Other members of the design team include costumers Lilly Westbrook and Candice Wade, set designer Deborah Drew, prop master Janet Olsen and sound designer Jordan Fearon.
The show is supported by Platinum Sponsor CSP Management, with Silver Sponsorship via Snug Planet and an anonymous fund at the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, with additional grant support from Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County and season-long support from CSP Management.
The show runs one weekend only: June 21-23, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission; students and seniors $12, available on-line at www.runningtoplaces.org and from the State Theatre Box Office, 105 West State St or 607-277-8283.
Featured image: (clockwise from top left) Elsbeth O’Toole as Scarecrow, Sirus Desnos as Tinman, Julianna Cuevas as Lion, Nevada Luce as Toto, and Ella Monroe as Dorothy. (Provided by R2P)