By Terrance Afer-Anderson
Arts & Culture Columnist
New Journal and Guide
“The Wiz,” the extraordinary urban retelling of the L. Frank Baum classic “The Wizard of Oz,” opened on Broadway in 1975. The groundbreaking production netted seven Tony Awards, including “Best Musical,” has emerged as a classic in its own right, and has been produced in such far flung places as the Netherlands.
In even its original rendition, “The Wiz” is a resplendent fantastical tale that appeals to the perennial fountain of youth that thirsts to linger in all of us, adults and children alike. As such, it is a story perfectly poised to be portrayed by a predominantly child cast. That is the case with the upcoming Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center production, opening this Thursday, February 18, and it has been placed in the hands of a seasoned director, one who began his own career onstage as a prolific child performer. Enter Michael LeMelle.
LeMelle attributes his earliest foray in the performing arts to a local legend. “The late, incomparable Margie Day was one of my greatest childhood influences,” he said.
An internationally-acclaimed singer, Norfolk native Day recorded on such labels as RCA, Atlantic and Decca. Eventually, she returned to her hometown and found the children’s performance group Center Stage. It was there she that met the young LeMelle. “(She) gave me my first opportunity to be a part of a troupe and travel and get paid for my talents,” LeMelle continued.
“She helped me to understand the difference between being a professional performer and just being a performer.”
It is that penchant for stellar accomplishment and professionalism that has defined LeMelle’s career. He is bringing that spirit to bear, directing his large, mixed child and adult cast.
He does find “meeting all the varying degrees of experience, age, and interests consistently” as his greatest challenge in holding the reins on the production. Yet, he wisely sought the counsel of a veteran from the original Broadway cast of “The Wiz.” Enter Queen Esther Marrow.
Marrow’s own career also achieved a remarkable ascent at a young age. At 22, she was discovered by Duke Ellington and was featured in his “Sacred Concert” world tour. She went on to perform with such greats as Lena Horne, B.B. King, Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and fellow Newport News native Ella Fitzgerald. Years later, she was cast as “Auntie Em” in the “The Wiz,” and also appeared in the Broadway productions of “Nice To Be Civilized” and “Comin’ Uptown.”
Marrow waxes philosophical about her career on-stage, the arts, and life in general. Describing it as “an unforgettable experience,” she was also involved in the civil rights movement, bringing her inspired vocals to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “World Crusade.”
“I believe the arts can play a very important role in political activism,” she said, “in that it allows self expression and can act as an outlet for those people who want to express their feelings…” Marrow continued, “You can tell a story through the arts that can last a lifetime and be passed from one generation to the next.”
It is the future generations, especially of artists, that gives Marrow concern. “I care greatly about our young people,” Marrow said. “When Michael LeMelle asked me to be a consultant with this show, I was more than happy to participate.”
As an urban musical, LeMelle defines “The Wiz” as “a timeless, iconic piece that afforded us the opportunity to introduce a new group of young people to theatre with something ‘familiar’ to them.” He is particularly buoyed by “introducing theatre to a new generation of performers and teaching them.”
“The arts,” LeMelle says, “are so important to bring to them, because of the healing and growth it promotes: mentally, physically, emotionally and socially.” He adds, “The arts encourage cognitive reasoning, and community, while helping them to discover and realize their different, untapped potentials.”
Marrow adds, “The most rewarding thing about working with community youth and adults on this production is being able to watch the transformation from the auditions to the actual show…. It is amazing,” she continued, “to see the hard work and dedication pay off.”
Such commitment has paid remarkable premiums for LeMelle, as well as Marrow. He has produced concerts for the likes of Tony Terry, The Unifics, singer-actress Dawnn Lewis, and his own group For Brothers. He has written and staged innumerable performances of his one-man show Nat Turner, and will be appearing soon in Oscar winner Meg Ryan’s film “Ithaca,” which stars Ryan and Oscar winner Tom Hanks.
But what advice would Marrow give to the youthful performers in this production, who have yet to walk in her and LeMelle’s shoes.
“I would always tell the aspiring performer to get an education. That is something that no one can take from you. I would also say that is important to stay humble in everything that you do. You never know who is watching and having a positive attitude and determination can take you far. Always work towards your dream!”
“THE WIZ” plays at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center, 2410 Wickham Avenue, Newport News, VA, 23607, from Thursday, February 18, 2016, at 6 p.m. thru Saturday, February 27, 2016, at 9 p.m.