Chicago native Melody A. Betts has already left an indelible impression with theater lovers for playing not one but two roles in the beloved musical “The Wiz,” now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Downtown Chicago.
The show only started Tuesday, and she already feels the hometown love for her performance in this signature Broadway in Chicago production, which runs until Dec. 10.
“I feel proud to rep this city in this way. And I feel like Chicago is proud of me,” said Betts in an interview with The Chicago Defender. “I mean, there was somebody in the audience the other night that just yelled out my name.”
Being recognized and having her name shouted out is something she’s going to have to get used to, thanks to her riveting turns as Aunt Em and Evillene in “The Wiz,” which retells L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” with a Black twist.
Merging Her Gospel Background with Her Operatic Training
If there’s anyone equipped to pull off this double duty, it’s Betts. Her operatic soprano training and gospel choir upbringing at the Greater Garfield Missionary Baptist Church in Humboldt Park makes it all possible.
“Being that it’s a Black show, we get to sing the way we do at church,” she said about the rollicking musical where Dorothy’s journey is set to soul, gospel, rock and 70s funk. “Now, here’s the thing: singing that way isn’t sustainable. You can’t actually do that eight times a week and keep your voice.”
Betts said that’s where the rigor of her classical training comes into play, especially with memorable numbers from the musical such as “The Feeling We Once Had.”
“Even though my voice does get tired, the training that I’ve had over the years helps me to be able to maintain and keep my instrument healthy.”
Playing Aunt Em and Evillene in ‘The Wiz’
Betts took utterly different routes in preparing for each role. Her experience as a mother enabled her to play the nurturing Aunt Em. But portraying the villainous Evillene, whose goal is to capture Dorothy and her friends, was a more complicated journey.
For Betts, playing the Wicked Witch of the West allowed her to explore the root of her vileness.
I had to open up myself more for the part of Evillene. I had to become somebody’s biggest challenge, somebody’s greatest fear. I had to dig a little bit deeper into myself to think about things that I’ve had to overcome in life and what that felt like for me. I also had to think about what it’s like being a Black woman in the world, being exhausted all the time because we’re doing everything.
Betts added that what makes Evillene who she is are experiences that many Black women in America feel.
It’s the fear of having to ask for help and, hearing no, and then not knowing what to do. It’s being frustrated with the way things are, knowing they could be better, and they’re not. There’s so much more to the story behind what people deem as the “Angry Black Woman.” And I felt it necessary to bring that to the forefront. Evillene is not just evil; she’s not just angry, she is tired. She is afraid. She’s frustrated, and she’s exhausted. And she is running out of options that will help her.
To be Evillene, Betts said, she had to think about her life and choices.
“I had to think about the masks that I’ve worn so that I could function in the world. I have had to think about the fight that I’ve had with forgiveness and vulnerability. And I had to bring that into what I’m doing.”
Ultimately, “The Wiz” marries elements from the Broadway show and the film adaptation into a unique and captivating experience for audiences.
Actor Alan Mingo, Jr., who plays The Wiz, shared that Chicago audiences will indeed be in for a treat when they see this iteration of this beloved classic.
“You’re going to hear a lot of songs you know and are familiar with, but we’ve added some great orchestrations to them, great vocal orchestrations, as well as background. So, if you sit back and enjoy the ride the minute you enter the theater, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed,” he said.
For More Information
What: “The Wiz,” produced by Kristin Caskey, Mike Isaacson, Brian Anthony Moreland, Kandi Burruss, Todd Tucker, Common, MC Lyte, The Ambassador Theatre Group and Broadway In Chicago
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W Randolph St in Chicago)
When: Playing from Nov. 28 – Dec. 10
What Else: Individual tickets are available by visiting www.BroadwayInChicago.com, or going to any Broadway In Chicago venue box office. Tickets are available now for groups of 10 or more by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710 or emailing GroupSales@BroadwayInChicago.com. For more information and complete tour route visit: www.wizmusical.com and follow @thewizbway on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.