Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Wicked is back at the Orpheum through the middle of next month and it is as lush and beautiful and whimsical and clever and glorious as ever. I last saw it on Broadway about a year ago and did not think I could enjoy any more or any better than I did then. But I was wrong. While the changing casts keep the show fresh, familiarity with the song, the lyrics, the intricate plot, and its singular characters sweeten the effect. Wicked is just one of those shows that seems to get better every time one sees it. And this production is particularly enchanting.
Unbelievably, this gem of a musical was panned by the New York critics when it opened on Broadway in 2003. Perhaps the critics were starting to tire of glitzy, multi-million dollar, high-tech musical blockbusters crowding out more modest fare. One can understand a nostalgia for small-scale, or at least pre-Lloyd Weber, musicals, whose fate at the box office would rest almost entirely on the right match of a high quality book, music and lyrics. In an ideal world with ideal Broadway economics, there would be room on the Great White Way for both varieties.
But surely there is something to be said for the sheer magnificence of a great big Broadway show with stellar production values. I am not suggesting that Wicked is only the sum of its extravagant sets and costumes and special effects. This show has everything. Everything. Eugene Lee's industrial-dystopian sets wonderfully complement the whimsical surrealism of hyperbolic wigs and costumes (Hunger Games borrowed the aesthetic from Wicked, not the other way around). The show has a terrific score by Stephen Schwartz that features some of the best showstoppers of the recent decades, and the touring production has a wonderful cast, including the best Elphaba you're likely to see anywhere.
Yet the technical gloriousness is also a thing to behold. (And what is more purely theatrical than spectacle?) How is it possible not to be thrilled as winged monkeys fly across the stage while the hands of an enormous Gothic clock spin upstage? How not to take joy in the Emerald citizens in Hairspray wigs and taffeta nickers as they spray confetti over the audiences heads as gigantic art deco set pieces straight out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis roll forward on metal grooves? And who doesn't love that hovering mechanical fire-breathing dragon whose eyes flash bright red whenever something bador is it good?happens in Oz?
Good? Bad? Sometimes it is hard to tell and anyway, who gets to decide? At least, that appears to be part of what the play is asking. Are good and wicked merely labels? "Is one born wicked? Or is wickedness thrust upon one?," asks Glindayes, that Glinda, the good one (Ginna Claire Mason, great), as Munchkins revel in a bacchanalia celebrating the death-by-melting of the "bad" one, Elphaba (Jessica Vosk, off the charts). Wicked is neither the first nor the last musical to thematize moral relativity. Though, at times, the play seems to undermine the claim that evil is only ever an illusion (plot spoiler: the fascist Wizard does not come off well).
Winnie Holzman does a good job of streamlining the byzantine plotlines of Gregory McGuire's novel. The social and political critique remains, but it takes second place to the feminist theme. Wicked was and ever will be a celebration of girl power. The play proves that you can have a successfulphenomenally successful musical that centers on, not just female friendship, but a complicated, emotionally turbulent, and dynamic relationship between two idiosyncratic young women as they shake off the roles that society has assigned them. They have not always liked one anotherbut each in coming to know the other came to understand herself. Yes, there is a guyFiyero (an endearing Jeremy Woodard)and for a time he creates a wedge between the women. But then what is most significant about the tension over Fiyero is that the friendship survives it, for it is, it turns out, the most crucial relationship of their lives. Glinda and Elphaba remain, as they began, very different individuals, but both have been forever changed and indisputably empowered, by the other. So when near the end of the play STEM girl Elphaba, who has always been the smarter and more gifted of the two, hands over the giant tome of magical spells upon which her own power depends, it is the most moving moment in the play. Glinda hesitates to take the book. She claims that she does not have the brains to figure out how to use it. It is the "bad" one who persuades the "good" one that she does, that she can.
The show only works if the casting of the two leads is perfect. Jessica Vosk is sublime, not only because she has the pipes to murder Elphaba's great showstoppers, "The Wizard and I" and "Defying Gravity." She has that thing they call star quality. Buckets of it. She pours her heart and soul into those belts; she gets your pulse to speed up. The people around me were all leaning forward as she sang "Defying Gravity." It is a song that builds and builds, and then goes on building, ending a full octave higher than it began. That build lends the performance a degree of suspense. When an actress is doing it right, she invites the audience into the drama. We are right there with her, rooting for her, wanting her to reach each leveland that last high notethe way we want LeBron to make that three-pointer before the buzzer goes off. And when Vosk does really murder that last crescendo, we gasp. And then we find ourselves feeling absolutely ecstatichappy for Vosk, for Elphaba, and (somehow) for ourselves.
Because Glinda's lines drip with sarcasm, it can be a challenge for an actress to convey the character's depth. However, Ginna Claire Mason's performance is so beautifully nuanced that she manages to communicate Glinda's insecurity and her growing self-awareness without sacrificing a jot of humor.
There is one more reason to see Wicked soon if you have not already (and once again if you already have). I was a little saddened to learn that there has been talk of a movie. I suppose it is inevitable andwho knows, it might all turn out to be great. Yet Wicked feels like it belongs in a theater with a live orchestra in the pit. For all of its extravagant production values, its design is abstract enough to leave much to the imagination, compelling the audience to actively use their own and to remain creatively engaged. I fear that some of the show's mystery and majesty might be lost when it is translated to the big screen. I might be wrong, but perhaps, possiblyWicked is one thing that is better left unchanged for good.
Performing through May 14, 2017, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55403. Tickets for Orpheum Theatre events are available at www.ticketmaster.com, https://hennepintheatretrust.org, or by calling 1-800-982-2787. For more information on the tour, visit www.wickedthemusical.com
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire