Open casting, like so much else in life, is really a matter of habit. We don't tend to think of Lawrence Olivier playing Othello (in black face, no less) as open casting. Why? Because we're used to it. But let an African American play Willy Loman, and we can talk all night about the pros and cons of open casting.
The Wiz, currently on the boards at the Skyfire Theater in Covington, took Broadway by storm in 1975 as a black-cast retelling of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. The 1978 movie version of The Wiz featured luminaries from the African-American pantheon such as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsy Russell, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor.
The production at Skyfire departs somewhat from the show's original African-American premise. Open casting, in this case, means giving some of the parts to white actors. But, if the premise has been tinkered with, the joyful spirit of The Wiz survives. And there are, by the way, some super African-American performers in this racially mixed cast -- including Idella Johnson as Dorothy.
We all know the story. The scarecrow (Landon Chapman), the Tin Woodsman (Stephen Kaup) and the Cowardly Lion (Jonathan Arnold) team up with Dorothy, who wants the wizard to help her get back home to Kansas. Before you know it, they have "eased on down the road" to Oz, where they meet that genial old phony, the Wiz (Ed Morvant). Of course, before they can get their wishes fulfilled, they must kill Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (KeShuna Jones). In the end, Dorothy learns all she ever had to do was click her heels together three times and those snazzy witch pumps on her feet would whisk her right back home to Kansas.
Director Rita Stockstill keeps things moving merrily along -- with the help of the clever revolving set by Rocky Hudson, Mark Abney and Mary Anne Toupes. The three-piece band is good; so is the singing.
All in all, Stockstill has forgone the temptation of trying to create a technological extravaganza (although she did throw in a few fireworks). Instead, she went for the likable folkloric simplicity of the tale. To achieve this, she had the good sense to gather an eminently likable cast.
Next -- to continue our discussion of open casting -- we turn to Hamlet, recently produced by Merely Players at Southern Rep. An actress named Angel Breckenridge played the central role. However, the playbill provocatively brandished a subtitle: Prince of Denmark. And, in fact, Breckenridge was never meant to be taken for a woman.
Shakespeare's tale would veer off into murky, postmodern territory if the subtitle read "Princess of Denmark." It's not just that Hamlet's courtship of Ophelia would become a Sapphic romance. That might work, in some way. Who knows? But, as the play is written, Ophelia's father, Polonius, warns her that Hamlet -- since he is heir to the throne -- cannot marry a nobody like herself. This important motive would have to be excised, or else we, in the audience, would have to imagine a Renaissance kingdom that sanctioned gay unions. In other words, a woman playing Hamlet (as a man) is an oddity, but does not distort the basic structure and meaning of the play. Whereas, a woman playing Hamlet (as a woman) would raise all sorts of complicated questions.
Speaking of questions, the first thing every reader of this column probably wants to know is what did I think of Hamlet with a woman in the lead. The question brings up what you might call the "curiosity" factor. I couldn't help but watch this Hamlet with the utmost attention -- partly because Breckenridge gave a zestful, sensitive and arresting performance -- but also, partly, for the same reason I pay the utmost attention to a high-wire act; namely, (forgive the vernacular) it takes a lot of balls!
At any rate, director Ray Vrazel assembled a fine cast and moved the production along in a brisk, though unhurried, fashion. He set the play in modernish times -- perhaps, Edwardian. However, there was a timeless, abstract quality to David Raphel's tomblike castle, with its one gold door, and to some of Michelle Bohn's costumes -- like the soldiers with their red caps.
A tip of the hat to Patrick McNamara (Polonius), Dan Rhodes (Horatio), Bert Pigg (Claudius), Adriana Bate (Gertrude), Robyn Nolting (Ophelia) and Billy Slaughter (Laertes), as well as a baker's dozen of actors in other supporting roles.
This Hamlet was a curiosity well worth seeing -- and not just out of curiosity.