"It's all just smoke and mirrors." This line, spoken by Elphaba, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West, to the Wizard of Oz in the hit Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman musical Wicked , is all too prescient; Wicked, which swept into Calgary this week, is a triumph of technical staging, eye-popping visual effects, and theatrical wizardry. What is missing, however, is a true heart (something it has in common with the Tin Man, I suppose) and a score worthy of its source material. While there are occasional glimpses of what "might have been," Wicked all too often falls flat.
Let's start with the good (no, not Glinda ... not just Glinda). The tour as a whole is excellent and professional. The cast is top notch and performs the show with an energy and intensity rarely seen in touring productions. From the initial strains of the show opener "No One Mourns The Wicked," this company is invested in selling the story to the audience. The cast is large, and there are several chorus moments. In many tours it is in the chorus numbers where the show seems to sag just a little; however, this touring production has an ensemble gifted with incredible energy and talent. The chorus numbers "Dancing Through Life" and "One Short Day" are vibrant, in large part due to the exuberant dancing and singing of the ensemble.
Don Amendolia is a total knockout as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Amendolia is charming even as he explains his diabolical plans for Oz. His two big numbers, "A Sentimental Man" and "Wonderful", are two of the show's more appealing pastiche songs, and Amendolia captures their tongue-in-cheek natures perfectly as he minces and prances around the stage. This Wizard is a humbug, much like the original L. Frank Baum creation, but he's also a diabolical schemer with plans to wipe out Oz's animals, and Amendolia manages to make this slimier aspect of his character somehow understandable and acceptable. Also impressive is David Nathan Perlow in the role of the carefree student heartthrob Fiyero, who turns the heads of both Elphaba and Glinda. The character is quite one-dimensional, much like that of Raoul in Phantom of the Opera, but despite this, Perlow's vocals are gorgeous and he easily charmed the audience on opening night with his smile and swagger.
Of course Wicked would be nothing without those two famous witches, Glinda the Good and Elphaba. In the role of Glinda, Natalie Daradich is exceptional. She flits and flounces around the stage in an endless flurry of allure and dazzle. On paper, the role would seem totally awful: she's a spoiled rotten, self-absorbed manipulator. Like the Wizard, she's hardly a likable character, but in Daradich's more than talented hands, Glinda is wonderfully hilarious, well meaning, and sensitive. Daradich possesses a clear and beautiful soprano, and can also dig down deep for the big belters, such as the show's arguably most, ahem, popular number, "Popular." The character of Glinda is also more complex than she seems, and Daradich handles Glinda's transition from self-absorbed co-ed to slightly-less-self-absorbed public official wonderfully. She is at her best, however, in her scenes with Anne Brummel as Elphaba, particularly in the "Dancing Through Life" sequence, when Glinda realizes that a joke she has played on Elphaba is unacceptably cruel and makes amends by embarrassing herself. Daradich manages to take the audience on a momentary journey through Glinda's up-till-then unsullied conscience, and it is one of the only true moments of pathos in the show.
And finally, there are simply no words of praise high enough for Anne Brummel in the role of Elphaba. Brummel prowls, growls, and scowls her way through the evening as only the most misunderstood people can. Elphaba is a difficult character to embody; the temptation to play her too harsh must be incredible, but Brummel has discovered that soft-hearted core in the character. Her scenes with Elphaba's beloved professor Doctor Dillamond (a charming Martin Moran) are touching; as the two outcasts share lunch, Brummel's Elphaba displays true vulnerability and compassion. Also wonderful is Brummel's command of dry humour. Her interactions with Daradich's Glinda are priceless, especially in the hilarious number "What Is This Feeling?" One must have a very strong voice to play Elphaba, and in that category as well, Brummel is more than up to the task. Very early on in the evening, it is apparent that her vocals are powerful. Elphaba's first big solo number, "The Wizard and I," drew incredible applause on opening night. Similarly, the now-legendary act one closer "Defying Gravity" is an exceptional tour de force. I found myself watching Brummel with my mouth hanging open as she blasted her way through the final verse.
As mentioned before, the show is a technical marvel. The set is incredibly intricate, based largely on a cogs and wheels motif and a proscenium arch decorated with a large Dragon Time Clock (one of the few references to the Gregory Maguire novel). Glinda's first arrival in a large floating bubble is impressive. One of the most remarkable moments in the show is the seamless set change and transition between the song "What Is This Feeling?" into the Shiz University classroom of Doctor Dillamond. All of these elements are faithfully recreated from the original Broadway production by Associate Director Lisa Leguillou. Also worthy of mention is the choreography, recreated on tour by Associate Choreographer Corinne McFadden Herrera. The audiences on the tour are treated to athletic, perfectly executed, and exciting dances akin to those originally created by choreographer Wayne Cilento.
Sadly, even with all of the positives mentioned here, Wicked is less than the sum of its many moving parts. The original novel by Gregory Maguire is a deliciously dark study of what happens when people obsessed with opposing ideologies are forced into relationships, as well as the bitterness that comes when all of one's good intentions backfire. The musical, however, despite occasional glimpses of this darkness, fails to honour its source material. The book by Winnie Holzman is cotton-candy fluff, relying on many "cute" devices to create a light-hearted atmosphere where one is not warranted. Also cloying is Holzman's attempt to appeal to original Oz fans by inserting illogical origins for the Tin Man and The Scarecrow.
The biggest letdown, however, has to be the score itself. In many places, there are glimpses of what a darker Wicked might be. Stephen Schwartz, known for the scores to Godspell and Pippin among others, contributes his most uneven work here. The opening number, "No One Mourns The Wicked," is dissonant, with jarring chords setting an instant mood of angst and anger. Throughout the evening, there are occasional hints of the darker musical palette set-up by Schwartz in the opening number, most notably in the eleven o'clock number "No Good Deed," but they are too few and far between. The mood is not sustained, and Schwartz too often resorts to saccharine power ballads that sound like rejects from a Celine Dion album. Ballads such as "I'm Not That Girl" and "As Long As You're Mine" are pure schmaltz and completely out of character for the angry and driven Elphaba. Where Schwartz does get it right are in the aforementioned pastiche numbers for the Wizard and the chorus number "One Short Day"; these numbers lack the trying-too-hard feel of most of the rest of score, and "Popular" is sheer delight ... only the most churlish would try to deny it. One other problem with the score is the uneven quality of the lyrics. In places, Schwartz shows his adeptness at rhyme and clever turns of phrase such as the following line from "Popular": "don't be offended by my frank analysis/ think of it as personality dialysis"; however, in other songs, he resorts to pedestrian imagery and similes, resulting in a feeling of being told the emotions, rather than shown them, most egregiously in Elphaba and Glinda's parting number, "For Good": "Like a stream that meets a boulder/ Halfway through the wood/ Who can say if I've been changed for the better?/ But because I knew you I have been changed for good."
Despite these objections, the crowd on opening night gave the show rapturous applause, and judging by the number of original Broadway cast albums being sold in the lobby, I have to concede that the show does indeed strike a chord with its audience. With great production values and a truly energized cast, this tour is guaranteed to continue pleasing audiences. My only hope is that amongst all the t-shirts, CDs, and programs being sold, someone may have also purchased a copy of the glorious novel which inspired the phenomenon to begin with.
Wicked runs at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary through Sunday, July 17th. Tickets can be purchased online through Ticketmaster.ca or at the Jubilee Auditorium box office. For further tour information, please visit www.BroadwayAcrossCanada.ca. For more information on the tour, visit www.wickedthemusical.com/.