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Teatro San Diego preps for its first live production: ‘The Wiz’

 Teatro San Diego's "The Wiz" actors rehearse a scene.
John Wells III (Tin Man), left, Dorothy-Cierra Watkins (Dorothy), Kevin “Blax” Burroughs (Lion) and Javon Simmons (Scarecrow) rehearse for Teatro San Diego’s “The Wiz.”
(Courtesy of Brittany Adriana Carrillo)

The pandemic-born company aims to create more opportunities for BIPOC, LGBTQ and women artists

Chadae Nichol says there’s a special place in her heart for “The Wiz.”

Charles Small and William F. Brown’s 1975 “Super Soul Musical” adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” was the first Broadway show Nichol’s mother ever saw, and its cast album was in near-constant rotation in their Chicago-area home as Nichol was growing up.

In the years that followed, Nichol became a professional dancer, musical theater and opera performer and teaching artist, and among her many stage credits were a couple productions of “The Wiz.” Now, the Los Angeles resident is making her professional directing debut with Teatro San Diego’s “The Wiz,” opening tonight in San Diego.

Nichol and Julio Catano, Teatro San Diego’s executive director, became friends years ago when they performed together in the musical “Camelot” in Washington, D.C. During the pandemic, Catano called Nichol to tell her he was starting a new theater company in San Diego and he wanted her to direct the first show.

Director Chadae Nichol, far left, speaks with the cast of Teatro San Diego's "The Wiz" during rehearsals.
(Brittany Adriana Carrillo)

Teatro San Diego was launched in 2020 to provide more artistic opportunities for all, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or disability. Last summer, Teatro produced a filmed production of “Songs for a New World” that was remounted this summer in a coproduction with Oceanside Theatre Company. But “The Wiz” is Teatro’s first independently produced show for live audiences.

“The Wiz” will be presented at the 106-seat Diversionary Theatre. Nichol said most people know “The Wiz” for its star-studded and epically scaled 1978 film adaptation. A production that size isn’t possible at Diversionary, so Nichol said her directorial vision is for a more intimate connection between actors and audience.

“I wanted to focus on bringing out the more prevalent themes in the show about relationships and finding your place in the world. Those aren’t usually highlighted as much because the music and dancing is so fabulous,” Nichol said. “But I feel like the space can support the story more and make people feel like they are right in the middle of it. I think that the audience is going to be surprised at some things and inspired by some other moments as well.”

Teatro’s choreographer, Alyssa “Ajay” Junious, also has a personal connection to “The Wiz.” The native San Diegan performed her very first tap dance solo to the show’s “Ease On Down the Road” when she was 10. After earning a degree in dance and choreography from UC Irvine in 2011, Junious returned to San Diego, where she worked for several years in local dance concerts before starting her own company in 2015, Continuum, with the goal of branching into choreography.

Teatro San Diego's "The Wiz" cast rehearses a scene.
Teatro San Diego’s “The Wiz” cast rehearses a scene, from left, John Wells III, Javon Simmons, ShaNyeyah White, foreground, Kevin “Blax” Burroughs and Cierra Watkins.
(Brittany Adriana Carrillo)

She made her musical theater debut dancing in “Diana” at La Jolla Playhouse in 2019, and last year made her musical theatrical choreography debut in “Songs for a New World.” She also choreographed “Into the Woods” this spring in Oceanside. Junious said “The Wiz” has allowed her to flex her skills by creating dances in multiple styles, including ballet, jazz, hip-hop, African and dancing in high heels.

Like Nichol, Junious is reimagining “The Wiz” for the Diversionary space. To create the illusion of movement around the land of Oz, she has a dancer playing the Yellow Brick Road, teaching the characters a step and then leading them around as a sort of dancing guide. And because the audience will be close to the stage, she’s creating smaller and more specific movements — like a flexed foot, wink or finger tap — that normally wouldn’t be visible from seats in a large theater.

Nichol and Junious both said that Teatro’s mission to give artists new opportunities has brought a lot of fresh talent and energy into the 16-member cast. Some young actors are making their stage debuts and two dancers are singing in a show for the first time.

“As a longtime teaching artist, helping people discover their voice artistically and push their own limits is something I’m proud of and excited for,” Nichol said. “It’s a launching pad for them.”

‘The Wiz’

When: 7 p.m. tonight. 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday. 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Teatro San Diego at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego

Tickets: $30

Online: teatrosandiego.org/tickets


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