Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Cincinnati audiences have good reason to rejoicify!! When the megahit musical Wicked played here in 2006 for the normal two-week subscription run, many fans were left in the dark without tickets. When it was announced that the tour would be returning less than two years later for a four week engagement, it was good news for all. And ticketholders won't be disappointed. In its return to Cincinnati, Wicked continues to skillfully create the magic that has made it a sell-out in New York since the show's 2003 premiere, in large part thanks to its first rate cast.
Wicked is a quasi-prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Loosely based on the 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.
The book by Winnie Holzman is a smart, funny and moving one. Following the would-be witches from starting school together through that 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 sufficient 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 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 the 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."
As Elphaba, Carmen Cusack portrays the protagonist as a hurt, yet determined and intelligent outsider, but also as one eager to belong. Her strong vocals are straightforward, clear and powerful, and are colored with less of the soulful or rock sound associated with other actresses who have played the role, but with more subtlety. Katie Rose Clarke is a comical hoot as Galinda, with her over-the-top antics during "Popular" being especially hilarious. She sings with great clarity and ease, and also scores well with the emotional aspects of the character.
Cliffton Hall (Fiyero) brings handsome looks and a strong singing voice as the object of affection for the leading ladies, but doesn't bring out all of the possible layers of the character. Broadway veterans Lee Wilkof (The Wizard) and Alma Cuervo (Madame Morrible) put their years of stage experience to excellent use, and solid work is provided by the other supporting players: Tom Flynn (Doctor Dillamond), DeeDee Magno Hall (Nessarose), Brad Weinstock (Boq) and Kyle Hill (Chistery). The hard-working chorus is praiseworthy as well.
Director Joe Mantello deserves kudos 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 a strong emotional pull, laugh-out loud humor, universal themes and a good dose of eccentricity (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 conveys the uniqueness associated with Oz. Boko Suzuki leads the talented pit orchestra.
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. 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 wonderfully in "Defying Gravity" and "No Good Deed."
For audience members who have a difficult time reconciling this alternative story to the famous film or its classic source material, here are 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.
Wicked is the first of several higher profile shows to play Cincinnati's Aronoff Center as part of the Broadway Series in 2008. Still on the docket are Sweeney Todd, The Color Purple and Jersey Boys. Wicked sets a high bar in design and stagecraft, and this tour boasts a talented cast. Audiences are sure to be standing in exuberant applause for each of the performances to come until the show ends this run in Cincinnati on February 3, 2008. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.-- Scott Cain