Sometimes, when directors strip a script to the essentials, new insights come to light. Then there are shows like Burning Coal Theatre Company's THE WIZ, whose opening night coincided, in a strategically questionable move, with the ultra-hyped NBC broadcast of The Wiz Live!.
Though director Randolph Curtis Rand has hit pay dirt with alternative stagings before, this is a far more qualified success, along the lines of his (Three Man) Tempest, which also reduced the cast and design elements of a fantastical text—at times, to the point of diminishing returns.
Spectacle has been mostly excised from this take on the 1975 black musical version of The Wizard of Oz. Instead of a Kansas farm, we find three mic stands on a bare yellow stage floor at the opening. Scene titles and setting notes are read aloud, in lieu of actual sets, as if we were watching a staged reading.
Multiple corners seem to have been cut, from Julie Florin's three-piece band to the rolling office chairs that create the fateful twister. It's the second consecutive Burning Coal show this season where an old overhead projector provides cheap lighting effects. With no other visual reference onstage, it's Dorothy's butt that flattens the Wicked Witch of the East.
Amid relentlessly minimal production choices, two elements dependably take us into the outlandish: actor Aaron Wright's unhinged, incandescent smile, a special effect unto itself in his work as the narcissistic title character, and Kima Baffour's vivid costumes.
Carly Jones convinces as Dorothy, and Juan Isler's Lion steals a scene as the temperamental lead singer in a soul revue. Demetrius Jackson fully animates Avis Hatcher-Puzzo's choreography in "Slide Some Oil to Me" and the plaintive "What Would I Do If I Could Feel." Brittany Nicole Timmons effortlessly conveys the diva stature of Glinda in "Believe in Yourself."
But the night we saw it, momentary pitch snags recurred, and the sound design made singers muted and canned at some points, crystal clear at others. Though the cast's abundant energy and commitment kept The Wiz afloat, that magic seemed at odds with a version determined to disenchant in other ways.
Burning Coal leader Jerome Davis is also directing a show in Raleigh, GROUNDED, which is even more stripped down. The difference? It's supposed to be.
Piloting a fighter jet is a lot like staging a one-person show; though logistics and ground support play a major part in both, they're ultimately solitary activities. In the second production in Sonorous Road's premiere season, actor and company founder Michelle Murray Wells ably navigates a maze of conflicting emotions and schismatic perceptions.
Playwright George Brant's 2013 drama is a gripping first-person tale of war in our time. Wells captures the machismo of an elite fighter pilot before her pregnancy forces her reassignment, flying drones half a world away. We then see her character undergo multiple changes as she deals with the stress and sensory deprivation of 12-hour shifts spent staring at a gray video monitor.
As Grounded unfolds, that grayness slowly seeps into her domestic life. Soldiers have tragically brought war home with them since time immemorial. But when this pilot does so every night, commuting from battlefield to suburban home, coping mechanisms fray, then start to fail. Aided by Matthew Adelson's atmospheric lighting, Wells keeps us strapped into this nightmarish odyssey all the way. Recommended.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Power stripped"