Penumbra partners with Children’s Theater on ‘The Wiz’

Given the collaboration’s assembled talent, a hit seems likely

Patdro Harris (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

The Wiz was never merely a remake of L. Frank Baum’s distinctly white-bread classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Still wholesome, family-friendly fare, it nonetheless over the decades underwent a telling, timeless transformation by which, reconceived, it celebrated and sustained the contemporary Black culture.

No small feat.

Indeed, The Wiz is a phenomenal accomplishment one can look to see repeated and perhaps improved upon with the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) and Penumbra Theatre production that opened January 23 at CTC. Tall talk, but consider: Staging this historic Broadway hit are institutions that epitomize theatrical excellence.

Tony Award-winning CTC’s peerless reputation is built on a 50-year history of adapting classic children’s literature. In the past two decades, that reputation has been enhanced to include original work by the likes of, among others, Chery L. West, Lonnie Carter and Carlyle Brown.

Artistic Director Peter C. Brosius extols, “It is a great thrill and honor to partner with Penumbra Theater. They are a major [national] force as well as a local treasure. The insights and experience they bring to this partnership [are] extraordinary.”

Penumbra Theatre is the world’s leading Black venue and among the nation’s finest. It rose in the wake of and eventually surpassed the legendary Negro Ensemble Company, which, led by Douglas Turner Ward, spawned the likes of Sidney Poitier, Rosalind Cash, Debbie Allen and more.

The house that Lou Bellamy built, painstakingly cultivating singular prominence, premiered and nurtured the craft of the Broadway icon and twice-Pulitzer Prize recipient August Wilson, who remained a company member throughout his career.

Newly minted Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy, succeeding founder Lou Bellamy, states, “[CTC and Penumbra] are getting to a space of depth and real honesty with each other in terms of our conversations about equity…our aesthetics…, and how we can create a proactive, equitable, shared learning environment…that feels very unique.”

Key in the creative team, Patdro Harris, Theatrical Outfit artistic associate and choreographer, is the assistant director for Lou Bellamy. Acclaimed by The New York Times, his internationally accomplished dance acumen has dazzled numerous prestige venues including Kennedy Center, National Black Theatre Festival, and the Guthrie Theater. He choreographed 2004’s Tony Award-winning A Raisin in the Sun starring Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald

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“There are eight students in this project. Once they own their performance, it’s something nobody can take away from them.”

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Pointedly, this material isn’t new ground for Harris. “It lives inside me, one of the most successful [vehicles] I’ve done around the country.” His approach? “I’ve got my own style: athletic.” Importantly, grounded in the aesthetic, he adds, “[It is] very polyrhythmic, [with] a lot of rhythms going on at one time.

“[It is] an aspect that is to African and African American dance as wet is to water.” As well, Harris is on the same page as Bellamy. “My [artistry] has always been from a directing point of view, looking at it [as] storytelling, not only movement. None of which, in this instance, amounts to much if you lack the wherewithal to work well with and get the best from child performers.

“I’m aware they’re kids. I like kids, but I treat them like professionals.” He’s also aware that youngsters sense the difference between being patronized with a pat on the head and being respected and responding accordingly. “We’ve established that.

“There are eight students in this project. Part of my job is to pass [skills and talent] on to them. Teach by example. You have to go to where they are. It’s been a joy to see them come alive. Once they own [their performance], it’s something nobody can take away from them.”

There couldn’t be a more natural fit for the Tin Man than Dennis Spears. Just as the character no longer looks for a heart, that quality veritably radiates from Spears on-stage and, of course, while chatting over a conference table at CTC.

Spears is unassuming with a warm, welcoming disposition. His heart clearly is the winning quality along with, naturally, his velvet voice, which more than a trademark is a suave persona that has endeared him to fans of the jazz ensemble Moore By Four. The Minnesota Music Hall of Famer has delighted audiences in Get Ready, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, Two Trains Running (Penumbra Theater), and his Ivey Award-winning solo show channeling the magic of Nat “King” Cole’s I Wish You Love.

The characteristic, he says, is a family trait. My grandmother taught me…what comes from the heart goes to the heart.” It is a trait that readily translates to doing the role. “In this group of friends, [Tin Man] helps protect Dorothy on their journey,” he continues. “He’s real. That’s what I love about him.”

To all intent and purpose, this is Penumbra at CTC. In addition to Spears, there is arguably the brightest star in the Twin Cities constellation, T. Mychael Rambo (The Wiz), of whom Harris says, “He’s wonderful to work with [and] does his homework; I’m grateful for that.”

Rambo, years back, leading the Penumbra cast of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, prompted this reviewer to remark that his dancing virtually repealed the law of gravity. “I love him as an artist,” Harris says. “When you’re a professional, you make it look easy.” The regional Emmy Award-winner has made it look easy in a host of hit productions, not the least being Amber Waves (CTC), Two Trains Running and Crowns (Guthrie Theater).

So, you have Spears and Rambo, along with company mainstay Greta Oglesby (Aunt Em/Evillene) and Aimee K. Bryant (Addaperle). The cast is rounded out with Grammy Award-winner Jamecia Bennett (Glinda), American Idol’s Paris Bennett (Dorothy), and Rudolph Searles III (Lion).

This takes nothing away from the Children’s Theatre Company whose artistic director, in fact, put unprecedented teeth in CTC’s espoused mission to reflect and further confirm cultural diversity when he stepped on board 20 years past. Brosius, knowing where to get the goods, simply went and got them. He has to be pleased to see CTC’s performing apprentice, Dwight Leslie (Scarecrow), learn the ropes from top-flight veterans.

For good measure, the music direction is by Sanford Moore, whose credits include Dinah Was (Penumbra Theatre), Nina Simone: Four Women (Park Square Theatre), Two Queens, One Castle (Mixed Blood Theatre) and, of course, leading Moore By Four.

Predicting that this collaboration of companies will produce a hit production hardly requires a crystal ball. It will be interesting to see what future fare they put on the boards.

 

Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403.

For more on The Wiz, see Khymyle Mims review here.