This rampantly pumped-up, adrenaline-stoked approach leads to a few choice moments, as when Melody A. Betts takes charge of the Wicked Witch of the West’s gospel showstopper, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” Other times, though, the vocal runs are so overindulged and the punchlines so exaggeratedly underlined that you might hear the scenery being chewed all the way out on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The challenge for this incarnation of the 1975 musical, wrapping up a week-long pre-Broadway tryout at the National, is to make all that exuberance work more effectively by doling it out more sparingly. Charlie Smalls’s score includes other humdingers — “Home,” “Ease on Down the Road” — but not every song in this R&B update of “The Wizard of Oz” should be performed as if it’s an audition for “America’s Got Talent.” In other words, the show could stand to ease on down more and vibrate madly a bit less.
The talent in this kid-friendly extravaganza is estimable, nevertheless, starting with a charming Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy: Her slippers may be made of silver rather than rubies, but she’s still wending her way to the Emerald City on the Yellow Brick Road in the company of the Scarecrow (Avery Wilson), Tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson) and the Lion (Kyle Ramar Freeman). The vocal prowess abounds in this trio — and so at times does the hamminess.
On hand, too, are a luminous Deborah Cox as Glinda — in a gaudy costume that sparkles like a disco ball — as well as that fraud of a Wiz himself, wittily played by Alan Mingo Jr. as a refugee from the road company of a national tour. (Wayne Brady takes over the titular role when the production starts on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre on March 29.)
“The Wiz” has never been a great musical. The jokes in William F. Brown’s book are too easy and the plotting too schematic to be affecting: Why heel-clicking Dorothy isn’t reunited onstage with Aunt Em (also played by Betts) at evening’s end is a dramaturgical mystery. But it’s always been an entertaining show, fueled by the masterstroke of imbuing L. Frank Baum’s timeless children’s story with a Motown vibe.
On this occasion, the diversions include the ministrations of choreographer JaQuel Knight, a veteran of Beyoncé’s productions, who puts the dancers through explosive workouts, in hip-hop and house-dancing sequences. (The dance ensemble, portraying everything from the winds of the tornado to the citizens of Oz, is athletically outstanding.) The moves in the opening Act 2 production number, “The Emerald City,” in fact, feel as if they could have borne Beyoncé’s own seal of approval.
Inspired by the chromatic concepts in the 1939 MGM movie version that starred Judy Garland, set designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Sharen Davis start the musical with a black-and-white palette for Kansas — and then let their Pantone color chips go crazy, after Dorothy and her house land on the Wicked Witch’s sister in Oz. At times, the visual conceits run so amok you don’t know where to look — emblematic of a production that pulls out all too many stops.
The Wiz, book by William F. Brown, music and lyrics by Charlie F. Smalls. Directed by Schele Williams. Choreography, JaQuel Knight; orchestrations, Joseph Joubert; sets, Hannah Beachler; costumes, Sharen Davis; lighting, Ryan J. O’Gara; sound, Jon Weston; projections, Daniel Brodie. With Allyson Kaye Daniel. About 2 hours 35 minutes. Through Sunday at National Theatre 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. broadwayatthenational.com.