Oz gets postmodernized
On July 30, Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival will present The Whiz: Over the Rainbow, by Nicholas Leichter Dance with Monstah Black. A familiar reference is part of the lure of the title, and this one uses two: One, to attract fans of The Wiz (1978) who watched Diana Ross and Michael Jackson traverse a gritty, urban Oz. Another, to reel in devotees of The Wizard of Oz (1939), who might expect to hear Judy Garland’s wistful, opening song, and, like The Wiz fans, see some version of the storyline they remember fondly.
It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch. The show is full of new interpretations of Quincy Jones’ songs from The Wiz, and the fabulously energetic new choreography pays homage to the film's. But this Oz is an edgy one with men in heels, a Korean performance artist of indeterminate gender and off-theme songs, such as “Lick Shots” by Missy Elliott. In fact, The Whiz has no narrative structure at all. There are theatrical elements—lots of costumes from sharp business suits to glittery bikini tops and boxing gear. Finally, a story is not the thing The Whiz is here to relate.
In an unusual arrangement, the artists and presenters agreed that The Whiz would be different in every iteration building up to this festival appearance and its subsequent seven-city tour. Performed by Leichter’s dance company with a gender-bending, MC-like persona played by Monstah Black, the work has progressed from a song-and-dance for three in a showcase in March 2008, to a 50-minute medley for eight dancers on a stage that could generously be called an asymmetric platform (Joe’s Pub in March 2010), to an evening-length work blown out to Abrons Arts Center’s proscenium stage in June. While cast members have broken the fourth wall in each setting, Damrosch Park, with seating for 3,000 and a capacity of 10,000, presents a challenge.
“The yellow brick road is really long now,” Leichter said.
NICHOLAS LEICHTER DANCE FIRST PERFORMED at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival in 1996, the year the then 24-year-old founded his company after leaving Ralph Lemon’s post-modern dance group. Enthusiastic reviews will cite Leichter’s own charisma as a dancer, his choreographic fluidity and his seamless joining of styles, from ballet to modern to West African to club and street dance. Less glowing reviews, such as one for last year’s Joyce Theater season, which included a number in this Whiz, criticize his dances for resembling what one might see in a music video, which in the end, hardly means a poor showing.
No one can deny Leichter’s musicality, and as deftly as he can choreograph to or against a hip-hop groove, he can set his dances to works such as Orff’s Carmina Burana and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, both commissions by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. But Leichter was slow to embrace The Wiz as a vehicle to the higher ground he’s now seeking for his company, despite considering the Tony Award-winning score of Broadway musical “one of the best of the late 20th century” and the film score, “Quincy Jones’ finest moment as an amazing arranger.”
The Whiz was first a glint in the eye of DanceNOW, a nonprofit presenter founded by director Robin Staff. DanceNow had been the force behind Doug Elkins’ Fraulein Maria, based on the Sound of Music, and David Parker & the Bang Group’s ShowDown, based on Annie Get Your Gun. These modern dance productions, as well as Leichter’s The Whiz, began at DanceNOW’s partner, Joe’s Pub. Its cabaret stage, a tight fit for a grand piano and three or four lanky musicians, has hosted some of New York’s best and most beloved modern dancers—among them, Arthur Aviles, Jen Nugent, and Nicole Wolcott (all took turns as Fraulein Maria). As they somehow contain their movements to a stage barely 11 feet by 19 feet, dancers here sometimes sprinkle nearby tables with droplets of sweat.
“Way back when Robin invited me to do something for her Broadway series in 2008 I initially thought I wasn’t interested in doing that—it’s already been done,” Leichter said in a sit-down interview on a rehearsal studio floor. “When I mentioned it to Monstah, he started referencing the movie. He basically knew the entire score and I asked, ‘is there a particular song that you’re really passionate about?’ and he said, ‘I really love the Scarecrow song (“You Can’t Win”) by Michael Jackson. I would love to redo the music so it’s something completely different.’”
Staff put the piece in a shared showcase.