New Venture Theatre’s youth actors step into iconic roles this month in ‘The Wiz Jr.’

When the movie version of The Wiz debuted in 1978, it was unlike anything the world had seen before.

Built from the Tony-winning Broadway musical of the same name—and, of course, the original The Wizard of OzThe Wiz was a bold new undertaking. It was a whimsical musical adventure with an all-black cast, a technicolor collision of an iconic story with contemporary influences of soul, hip-hop, disco and R&B, led by a cast of musical juggernauts.

New Venture Theatre, by admission of its own name, has always been a bit of a bold undertaking as well. The local theater company emphasizes diversity and often spotlights stories of marginalized people. It’s fitting they’d be the ones to debut The Wiz Jr. in Louisiana.

While the original movie cast boasted iconic voices like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Lena Horne, the cast of New Venture’s The Wiz Jr. will be of a much younger age bracket. The show will feature more than 40 actors ranging from 7 to 17.

It’s down to the talent of the company’s kids to step up to the challenge—and the guidance of musical director Allison Blumenthal.

As the cast was coming together in late April, Blumenthal says she was confident The Wiz Jr. would feel as monumental as it was always intended—to audiences and performers alike.

“Even if you have seen a full-scale production of The Wiz, when you’re watching the Jr. version, you don’t feel like there are any gaping holes,” Blumenthal says. “I want these kids to feel like they are part of the real thing. This is not a watered-down, kid version. This is their large-scale production. This is The Wiz. The biggest, most important part is that we’re telling its story.”

A New York native, Blumenthal studied in Georgia before getting her teaching certification and master’s degree in collaborative piano performance at LSU. She’s now an elementary music teacher at Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet, a program through which she eventually connected with New Venture. She took on the responsibility of musical director last year.

After working with the company’s youngest members in Disney’s Lion King Jr. last summer, she’s seen their raw talent and knows the key to bringing this production to life is nurturing that talent while encouraging the kids not to pressure themselves to be something they’re not.

“First rehearsal, I say, ‘Look, disclaimer: You are not Michael Jackson. You are not Diana Ross. And that’s OK. We don’t want you to sound like them. We want you to sound like you,’” she says.

Blumenthal created mixes of the soundtrack for the cast to practice with that show off voices closer to their level of timbre and maturity. She’s determined to help create a production the cast can be proud of. She points to her background in New York as the beginnings of her investment in diversity in the arts. This show, she says, demonstrates just how important that diversity is.

Blumenthal says the crew plans to help its young cast get familiar with The Wiz and its important differences from the original Wizard of Oz. “This is the culture that it comes from, this is why,” she says. “And I think they’re going to get a lot out of that, and it’s going to encourage even more understanding of diversity and multiculturalism and hopefully initiate more curiosity and … plant some seeds for the future.”

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of 225 Magazine.