Sunday, July 7, 2019

Ease on Down the Road

Let's call it a celebration of friendship and sobriety.

A decade ago when I first met Foto Boy while eating a sandwich at Lift, I knew very little about him beyond that he bartended at Tarrant's. I knew even less about his past, except, I might add, for one major fact: he told me right away that he was celebrating his first year sober and drug-free. He was understandably very proud of himself for the accomplishment while I was just happy to have a new friend who liked to go out and do things.

Now, ten years later, he was looking to celebrate his eleventh year sober and drug-free and I had just the way to do it: fifth row seats to see the critically-acclaimed "The Wiz" at Virginia Repertory Theater.

As it turned out, both of us were "Wiz" virgins, having seen neither the '70s play nor the 1978 film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, so we sat down with a clean slate. The first thing that struck us both was how refreshing it was to see an all black/brown cast for a change.

And that was just the start. Everything about the production was impressive, from the dazzling Afro-futuristic costumes - the brilliance of the Munchkins' crazy quilt-like patterned costumes as they bounced along on colorful stability balls - and elaborate sets to the quality of talent onstage.

One thing he and I especially enjoyed was all the '70s references, from cracks about urban renewal in Oz to references to other characters as "this cat." And don't get me started on the Cowardly Lion's magnificent brown bell bottoms and two-tone platform shoes.

Better yet, do let me get started because, hands down, Brandon LaReau's performance as the lion, played with strong drag queen undertones, was nothing short of show-stopping. Whether flipping his blond-highlighted curly wig, mincing his steps or playing every situation for maximum laughs in his sequined vest and ring bedecked-fingers - although he also conveyed sweet tenderness skillfully - it was impossible to take our eyes off of him.

Surely never has a man conveyed leonine femininity trapped inside a male body so bodaciously.

Richmond's own Desiree Roots was a triple threat, playing a concerned Auntie Em as well as the goofy but charming good witch Addaperie (when she sees Dorothy's house has fallen on the witch, leaving only the red and white striped tights and feet visible, she IDs the body by saying, "I'd know those tacky pantyhose anywhere") and nailing the inherent meanness and cruelty of bad witch Evillene. I've seen Desiree play many roles, but never have I seen her command the stage as she did in a bustier, skin-tight pants, thigh-high leather boots and a black over-skirt that screamed dominatrix.

But we also had to give mad props to the ensemble, a coterie of uber-talented dancers who conveyed a tornado with balletic grace, the Munchkins' sweet exuberance, the Winkies' elation once Evillene was killed by Dorothy with buckets of water and the classic nightmare-inducing flying monkeys, whose masks contained kitchen utensils and industrial parts for added oddness and scariness.

During intermission, we toasted Foto Boy's momentous anniversary with the two tangerines I'd brought along for the purpose. Earlier, he'd posted a shot of his Sobriety medallion, appropriately marked "XI," with a watchband strap to illustrate the ongoing nature of his efforts.

Then we were back in Oz. If there was any regret, it was that we didn't get to see more of the Tin Man tap dancing because it's so rare that you see that onstage anymore.

Impressing me more than he's ever done before, Jerold E. Solomon captivated the audience as the Wiz, his song "Believe in Yourself" making for a true showstopper before he climbed in his hot air balloon and sailed back to Nebraska.

Oddly enough, the weakest link onstage was the actress who played Dorothy who, despite having a wonderful voice, brought no depth or soul to the character. Applauding at the end, it felt wrong for her to come out last for the final ovation when everyone else had touched the audience more strongly.

Clocking in at just over two hours, we were out on the street in what felt like no time, bemoaning that the play hadn't gone on for another hour just so we could listen to more of those stellar voices, watch the ensemble's fabulous dancing and revel in a play about unexpected friendships.

Walking home, Foto Boy shared that when the film had come out, he'd been young and hadn't been able to get his head around why anyone would want to see a classic like "The Wizard of Oz" done as an all-black production.

"But I was a kid, I grew up with a Tidewater mentality and my Dad was racist, so I didn't know any better," he admitted. All that began to change a few years later, so by the time we met, he was one of the most ardent social justice warriors I'd ever met. Still is.

I didn't see his FB post showing the play's program and the glittering "The Wiz" curtain behind it until I got home, but the words said it all: "At Virginia Repertory Theater celebrating 11 years with a friend who's known me since year one."

If back in 2009 I was Dorothy looking for my new life after my former one imploded, Foto Boy was my Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion rolled into one.

No doubt about it, I owe this cat a friendship medallion.

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