THE BLOG
07/20/2009 02:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ashanti Plays New York

As Elphaba, the tortured, misunderstood and green young woman who would grow up to become the Wicked Witch of the West, makes her way through the Vinkus region of the Land of Oz in Gregory Maguire's marvelous novel Wicked, she encounters the changeling Princess Nastoya--both woman and elephant--who tells her, "Listen to me, sister. Remember this: Nothing is written in the stars. Not these stars, nor any others. No one controls your destiny."

There is no Princess Nastoya in L. Frank Baum's classic tale of the girl from Kansas who dropped in one day and became an unrivaled witch-slayer; nor does she make a cameo in the wonderful re-imagining by William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls, The Wiz. But a Princess Nastoya stands somewhere in singer-songwriter-actress Ashanti's life, even if where she stands is in Ashanti's own heart.

Ashanti began dancing when she was very young, yet she is not known in R&B and Hip Hop-dom as a dancer. She blazed onto the scene in 2002 with her self-titled debut album, which featured the single "Foolish," going on to become only the second artist after the Beatles to have their first three chart entries in the top ten of the Hot 100 simultaneously--"Foolish"; "What's Luv" (with Fat Joe); and "Always on Time" (with Ja Rule), yet she is not known as a particularly powerful singer. Until her move to Universal this year, she was the princess of the music label Murder, Inc., yet she has never been known as anything but effervescently sweet, Pop not Street.

Many of the conversations I had in the month preceding Ashanti's star turn as Dorothy in the Encores! Summer Stars production of The Wiz, now in the midst of a 24 performance run at New York City Center, revolved around a single word masquerading as a question: "Ashanti?!" Could she handle the role created by the magnificent Stephanie Mills? Could she sing "Be a Lion?" Can she sing "Home?"

"'Home' is not an easy song," I said being diplomatic.

"No, it's not," my friend said.

The Wiz opened at the Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975 and later moved to the Broadway Theatre. It starred Stephanie Mills; Hinton Battle as Scarecrow; Tiger Haynes as Tinman; Ted Ross as Lion; Dee Dee Bridgewater as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South; Andre DeShields as The Wiz; Mabel King as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West; and Clarice Taylor as Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North. The production was directed by Geoffrey Holder. Ross and Bridgewater garnered Tony Awards for their performances, and Holder took home the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical. The production also won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design, and Best Choreography. Ross and King reprised their roles for the 1978 film The Wiz with Diana Ross; Michael Jackson; Lena Horne (as Glinda); Nipsey Russell (as Tinman); and Richard Pryor (as The Wiz).

Perhaps the best thing that can be said of the movie, which was a commercial and critical failure, but has gone on to become a cultural icon of sorts, is that it was the first time Michael Jackson worked with Quincy Jones, who supervised the adaptation of Charlie Smalls' and Luther Vandross' songs. Jackson is said to have watched videotapes of gazelles, cheetahs and panthers to learn "graceful movements for his part" as Scarecrow, and Jones recalled working with Jackson as one of his "favorite experiences" from The Wiz. They, of course, went on to co-create Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad.

Despite its ultimate success, critics in 1975 weren't universally enthusiastic with the "joy machine" The Wizquickly became as it dazzled audiences with its energy, its wit, its grace and its style. Revived on Broadway and in London in 1984, and staged in San Diego and Holland in 2006, the 2009 City Center production has energy, wit, grace and style to spare, thanks to its director Thomas Kail, nominated last year for a Tony Award for his direction of In the Heights, and its cast, led by the reformed Ashanti.

"She could have just sat back," my friend said over dinner. "She's done well; she's wifed-up to Nelly--his businesses are doing so well. But she's obviously put in the work to take her career to the next level. I'm proud of her."

Brown's book has been modernized for the year we're in, resulting in many funny lines; the production's dance (choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler) is inspired by the live orchestra (musical director Alex Lacamoire), but is ultimately released to tap, bop, hip-hop, swing and sway from one corner of the stage to the other; and The Wiz's notes--both spoken and sung--are hit, one right after the other, by the irrepressible Orlando Jones (The Wiz); the fleet of foot Christian Dante White (Scarecrow); and the big-hearted James Monroe Inglehart (Lion). This production of The Wiz wheels down the road, rocking and rollicking its audience along the way.

Joshua Henry (Tinman) was breathtaking and heartbreaking as he sang "To Be Able to Feel." Tichina Arnold was commanding and charismatic, even, as Evillene. Whenever Dawnn Lewis appeared as Addaperle, I couldn't take my eyes from her. And LaChanze was LaChanze as she performed the dual roles of Aunt Em and Glinda. She sounded the call early that we were in good hands with Aunt Em's performance opening "The Feeling We Once Had," only to return near the musical's close with Glinda's "A Rested Body Is a Rested Mind," her voice inviting and wise and full, like the language of mothers.

And, "Ashanti?!"

"Yes. Yes. Yes."