You’ve heard of the “Wizard of Oz,” but are you just as familiar with “The Wiz”?
The reimaging of the classic story, now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theater in the production’s pre-Broadway run, has a devoted set of fans stretching back decades.
Inspired by the 1900 book, which of course was made into a classic 1939 film, “The Wiz” first opened on Broadway in 1974 and was later turned into a movie starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. Now, a new production has arrived in Chicago.
Veteran actress Melody A. Betts, who plays both Aunty Em and Evillene in the production now playing in Chicago, says the central theme of the show remains the same and focuses on a young woman on a journey.
“So that’s relatable no matter who tells the story. However, ‘The Wiz’ … it’s just through a different lens, through the lens of the Black experience. So you’ll still be able to relate to the same story, you’ll just hear it a little differently,” Betts said. “The music will sound different, it will make you feel something different. But ultimately, you’ll get the same goodness from the original story.”
Betts says she didn’t want her work as Evillene, also known as the Wicked Witch of the West in the original story, to be a caricature.
“I wanted her to represent what it really feels like to be afraid to die, because I feel like that is ultimately her main challenge,” Betts said. “Yes, she represents Dorothy’s biggest obstacle and biggest fear because she has to get past it, but also Evillene has her own challenges, and her own journey that created her, made her who she is. And I wanted to honor that. The goal is to represent this character and encompass all of the things that she is, that she’s dealt with, is dealing with and is important to her.”
Betts knows the show has its ardent fans.
“The Black people in Chicago are not playing about this show,” Betts said. “If it was bad they would let us know without a problem. They’re extremely excited about it, and we can tell because they’re in the audiences. They are outside trying to get up in the theater, they are in the audience saying things to us, letting us know how they feel, and they are having a good time … You don’t need to hear it from me. Talk to the people who have seen it already, they’re having a good time up in here.”
You can catch “The Wiz” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre now through Dec. 10. The show makes its move to Broadway in March 2024.
Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3
Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.