Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Wicked is a quasi-prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Loosely based on novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire, the show focuses on the friendship of Elphaba, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda, whom movie fans know as Glinda The Good. The musical traces the relationship of these women and their attempts to stay friends even when power, politics, and a man come between them. The show provides an interesting back story for the characters from The Wizard of Oz, but also forces audiences to question what they think they know about those characters as well.
The book by Winnie Holzman is a smart, funny, and moving one. Following the would-be witches from when they start school together until the fateful day with Dorothy and her water bucket, the musical succeeds in using the audience's familiarity with Oz to create many hilarious lines, "wow" moments, and thought-provoking ideas. The show contains a gripping plot and has characters with real depth and clear motivations. More than anything, Wicked shows audiences that perception greatly impacts how we are viewed and accepted, as we find that the Wicked Witch isn't all that wicked, and that Galinda isn't always so good. One area in need of improvement is clarification of time. We never really know how old the witches are at the start of the show, and the amount of time that passes from beginning to end is also unclear. For those familiar with the novel, there are fewer political and dark graphic elements in the musical, making it more a story of friendship and female empowerment.
Wicked's score is a mixed bag. Written by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin), there are some songs that are instantly memorable and perfectly suited to the story ("What Is This Feeling?" and "Thank Goodness," which includes some insightful lyrics and a beautiful melody), and the fun "Popular," in which Galinda attempts to show the ostracized "green girl" how to fit in better with her classmates. Some of the lyrics contain ironic foreshadowing, such as Elphaba singing of hoping for "a celebration throughout Oz that's all to do with me" in "The Wizard and I." We all know there will indeed be a celebration, upon the announcement of her melting, but here the would-be witch is anticipating acceptance and recognition for the good things that she will accomplish with the help of the Wizard. However, there are also some numbers that fail to rise above mediocre, such as wizard's material ("A Sentimental Man" and "Wonderful") and the act two love duet (Schwartz has written much better ones than "As Long As You're Mine"). Still, the score is overall a strong one and is highlighted by a thrilling act one closer in "Defying Gravity" and a superbly touching duet for the two leads in "For Good."
The Cincinnati stop brings a number of new cast members to the tour, including a brand new Wicked Witch. Julia Murney is best known to musical theater enthusiasts for her thrilling lead performance in the Off-Broadway musical The Wild Party several years ago (which co-starred original Broadway Elphaba Idina Menzel). Ms. Murney provides a colorful and soulful singing voice with a range that easily handles the demanding musical material. And, despite this being her debut in the role, she presents a detailed characterization showing Elphaba to be an intelligent, hopeful, independent, and passionate woman of great depth.
As Galinda, Kendra Kassebaum, who has been with the tour since it started a year ago, is deliciously funny, making the role her own with an effective mix of a hyperactive Shirley Temple and Megan Mullally's self-absorbed character from Will & Grace. She handles the vocals well, but it is her embodiment of the perky, spoiled, and ultimately tender "good witch" that is most impressive.
Recent new cast member Sebastian Arcelus portrays Fiyero with the required charm and charisma, and his good looks and apt vocals are a plus too. Joining Murney as newcomers in Cincinnati are P.J. Benjamin (Wizard) and Alma Cuervo (Madame Morrible). Mr. Benjamin conveys grandfatherly warmth and shows the manipulative con artist that this Wizard is, while theater veteran Ms. Cuervo is appropriately authoritative and evil. Jennifer Waldman (Nessarose), Cincinnati native Timothy Britten Parker (Dr. Dillamond), Logan Lipton (Boq), and Steve Ewing (Chistery) all provide worthwhile performances as well.
Director Joe Mantello deserves a lot of praise for pulling such a large show together into a focused package. Trying to appeal to fans of The Wizard of Oz, readers of the novel, and the many teenage girls who have come to love the story of female friendship all at the same time is a difficult task, but Mr. Mantello has succeeded. There is sufficient emotional pull, humor, universal problems and dreams, and uniqueness (this is Oz, after all). Also, he has staged some wonderful scenes, including the fun opening, the hair-raising "Defying Gravity," a smart act two opener with an ode to Evita, and a surprising and moving finale. The athletic choreography by Wayne Cilento is also different enough to belong in Oz, though it isn't always the most pleasing to view. Robert Billig leads the talented orchestra playing lush orchestrations by William Brohn.
The design elements of Wicked are those of enormous spectacle, and yet they also serve the piece well. Eugene Lee's scenic design features opulent set pieces including a large metal dragon (which is an ode to the novel, but really doesn't serve much purpose in the stage version), an ominous wizard's head, and bright shades of green everywhere, especially for the Emerald City. But, there are also intricate smaller touches that likewise serve the storytelling and give the eyes a visual treat. The appealing costumes by Susan Hilferty are brilliantly detailed and varied, capturing the essence of Oz deftly. Kenneth Posner's splendid theatrical lighting captures the mood and atmosphere of the scenes, and is displayed fantastically in "No Good Deed."
For audience members who have a difficult time reconciling this alternative story to the famous film or its classic source material, I would offer two suggestions. You can either view Wicked as the real story and The Wizard of Oz as the official press release published at the time of the Wizard's departure from Oz, or view Wicked as the back story of the witches and other main characters, and The Wizard of Oz the story from Dorothy's limited point of view.
It is easy to see why this show is sold out in New York, Chicago, and wherever this tour stops. With a great cast to perform this polished and rewarding show, audiences of this tour just "couldn't be happier." Wicked continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 19, 2006.
-- Scott Cain