For Vernon Bush, playing The Wizard in "The Wiz" may be a dream come true, but it's also an opportunity to be reminded why he became a performer in the first place.
"The show really was the main thing that had gotten me into theater in the first place," says Bush, who is appearing in his second title role at Berkeley Playhouse.
Opening this week, the Berkeley production of the award-winning musical, a re-telling of L. Frank Baum's classic "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," boasts a cast of nearly 50 and is directed and choreographed by Kimberly Dooley ("Seussical, The Musical").
Written by William F. Brown, the original show won seven Tony Awards, including best musical, in 1975 and inspired a film version with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor, which drew even more attention to the music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls — songs such as "Home," "The Feeling We Once Had," "If You Believe" and "Ease On Down the Road."
"This is like full circle for me because I listened to this music when I was young," Bush says. "I remember it being so magical."
Originally from New York, the Bay Area-based Bush got started in theater, but left it after launching a successful career as a singer, songwriter, musician and recording artist, working alongside Nancy Wilson and the late Whitney Houston, among others.
Today he is a member of the a cappella group SoVoSo and has been a featured vocalist with the Glide Ensemble Choir at Glide Memorial Church for more than a decade.
After being so moved by hearing him sing at Glide, Berkeley Playhouse founding artistic director Elizabeth McKoy approached Bush and inquired about his theater background. He was cast as Willy Wonka in McKoy's re-imagined version of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" shortly thereafter.
Bush says he was curious about taking on the role of The Wizard in "The Wiz" because it would be "told from an African-American point of view," but admits that it was also "a great character study" in terms of his own life.
"I'm launching this new website called Voice Church," he adds, "and like the play, it's about finding the hidden things inside of you that are there, but because of the negative voices in your head or things people will tell you, you don't feel you can express them. I am one of those people that say, 'No, you have this. Let's see if we can explore this even deeper.'"
Spoken like a true wizard.
IF YOU GOThe Wiz
Presented by Berkeley Playhouse
Where: Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley
When: Previews 7 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Saturday; opens 7 p.m. Saturday, runs 7 p.m. most Wednesdays-Thursdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Saturdays, noon and 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 25
Tickets: $17 to $60
Contact: (510) 845-8542, ext. 351, wwww.berkeleyplayhouse.org