'The Wiz' eases into Corn Stock Theatre

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Of all the words that could be used to describe the character Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," it's doubtful that "funky" would be one of them.

But in "The Wiz," the Motown Productions version of the classic L. Frank Baum story told from the African American experience, that word pretty much sums up Dorothy and the rest of the cast, said Peoria community theatre veteran Bryan Blanks.

"The tone of the music is certainly more funky, but it is still just good musical theatre," said Blanks, who directs and performs in "The Wiz" for Corn Stock Theatre, opening Friday at 7:30 p.m. under the tent at Upper Bradley Park. "The general story is the same as 'The Wizard of Oz' but we are playing it with much more of an urban feel to it, like they did in the movie," he added, referring to the 1978 film that starred Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Nipsy Russell. "The costumes are more hip, the music has a definite Motown feel to it. It's more soulful, too. It's a good show."

Songs from the musical include "Ease on Down the Road", "A Brand New Day", "Believe in Yourself" and "Home."

The show runs for nine nights, starting at 7:30 p.m. each night through Saturday, Aug. 10. Tickets are on sale for $18 for adults and $12 for students and they can be reserved by calling 676-2196 or by visiting www.cornstocktheatre.org.

"The Wiz" is making its first run at Corn Stock, but it's the second time Blanks has directed it. He directed a children's show of "The Wiz" at Peoria Players Theatre; it was the first show he directed, therefore he has a special feeling about it.

But the show is part of a project at Corn Stock, Blanks said, and it is one he embraces.

"Corn Stock wanted to improve the diversity of its members as well as bring in new people to the company. I'm especially proud to be bringing new performers to Corn Stock, actors and singers we are going to see again and again, I hope," he said.

Blanks said he wouldn't direct "The Wiz" with an all-white cast because that is not how it was written. He has put together a blended cast with African-American performers in most of the top roles, as was written.

Gabrielle Lott-Rogers of Bloomington makes her Peoria theatre debut in the role of Dorothy, a role she's wanted to play since seeing "The Wiz" on stage when she was a child, Blanks said. "She is awesome," he said.

Brandon Chandler, a veteran of Peoria-area stages, portrays the Scarecrow and Aaron Jones portrays the Lion. Kelly Kooken portrays Evillene, Anita Foster is Glinda and Darren Jackson, impressive last year in his Corn Stock debut in "Hair," portrays The Wiz.

Jasmyne Providence, who wowed audiences in her Corn Stock debut last year in "Hairspray," portrays Aunt Em.

Portraying the Yellow Brick Road are dancers Marissa Taylor, Aleisha Graves, Jasmine Slaughter and Brittany Christensen.

Blanks portrays the Tin Man out of necessity. The actor originally cast in the role was forced to withdraw because of conflicts with just a couple weeks of rehearsal left. "My choreographer and music director and I all talked and discussed it with (Corn Stock Theatre manager Cindy Hoey) and decided since I know the show and the music and the role it would be best if I just stepped into it. It wasn't the ideal situation, but it was necessary," he said.

"I have to admit, though, that to be able to sing and act with this cast has been a joy. I keep pinching myself to make sure I'm not dreaming," he said.

His choreographer is Sarah Haynes, a veteran performer and choreographer who is doing her last show before relocating to Florida to continue her education.

Deric Kimler directs the music and the six-piece orchestra for the show. Blanks said it was important to have a live orchestra for "The Wiz" because "it is the music that really drives the beat. You have to have live musicians for that to happen well."

Blanks said it is important that the cast doesn't consider itself part of a diversity project, but part of a dynamic musical. "As a cast we don't see it as anything but a good show. I think from day one we all knew we had something special here. It's more important, I think, that this cast become members of Corn Stock and keep coming back to do more shows. Already some are asking about upcoming shows and they are excited about next season," he said.

He is pleased some of the shows planned for next year can have diverse casts, particularly "Jesus Christ Superstar," which will be in the third slot in July and directed by Chip Joyce, and "Spamalot," making its regional premiere in the final slot in late August and directed by Tim Wyman.

Blanks said it sometimes is difficult to find roles in some older musicals where an African-American can be cast in roles traditionally played by whites. He has himself been cast against type in recent shows, including as Marcellus in "The Music Man" earlier this year.

"The ideal world would be to be color blind when casting. If we have more shows where that can be done and directors who are color blind when casting, we will have a more diverse involvement naturally," he said.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).