Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ashanti exceeds expectations in 'The Wiz'

I had my doubts when I first heard R&B songstress Ashanti was going to play Dorothy in the off-Broadway production of The Wiz.

But last weekend, I checked out the show at the New York City Center and I was treated to a solid production filled with strong singing, pretty good acting and innovative choreography.

While Ashanti may be a Grammy Award-winning singer, I really didn't think she could pull off the part that had been previously played by Diana Ross and Stephanie Mills. But in her own way, she did an excellent job as Dorothy. A definite surprise to me and many who were in attendance.

Ashanti does not pack the powerhouse vocals of Mills, but her singing performances were clean and she proved that she's not just a 'studio artist' known for hits like "Happy," "Foolish," and "Rain on Me."

After the first half, I was impressed with her singing, but not so thrilled with her stage presence. My only real gripe was with her posture and lack of expressions. Her arms maintained straight down by her side nearly the entire team. But maybe that was part of playing the role of a lost little girl trying to find her way home??

Aside from her poor posture throughout the show, Ashanti soared in her performance as Dorothy. It was only the last song -- "Home" -- where I felt she missed the mark. It felt more like a high school talent show or amateur night on Showtime at the Apollo. "Home" is a powerful song and could use a voice that sings with lots of emotion. I didn't get that from Ashanti's rendition.


The best singer of the cast was Tony Award-winner LaChanze (formerly of The Color Purple) who played Glinda. She gave us the singing performance that Ashanti could not pull off. Her version of "Believe in Yourself" was moving and among the best vocals in the entire show.

The Lion, played by James Monroe Iglehart, was also among crowd favorites, especially his performance of "Mean Ole Lion."

But the showstopper was Tichina Arnold, who played the mean Evilene. Arnold took immediate command of the stage and the crowd. Most people know her from Martin and Everybody Hates Chris, where she was known for her witty acting, but her singing should not be overlooked. While her role was rather brief, the Evilene character made her presence felt. Her performance on "No Bad News" was definitely among highlights in the second half of the show.

The two-hour plus performance was well-worth the price of admission and did not leave me disappointed. The Wiz featuring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson was one of my childhood favorites and I would strongly recommend this production to anyone in the NYC area.

Hopefully it makes a good run and can end up on Broadway. Right now the production is makeshift and doesn't include the elaborate sets and costumes, but they did well with what they had.

Take a trip down the yellow brick road and see Ashanti in 'The Wiz,' today!


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