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Chicago by John Olson

Wicked
Oriental Theatre


Curt Hansen
While Wicked has its fans and its detractors (and you can call me more of a fan than a detractor), they might all agree that, whatever the show's merits are or aren't, the producers are to be praised for keeping the product quality up over its eight-plus years on tour. In this eight-week stop by the first national touring company (yes, the first—really) at Chicago's Oriental Theatre, there is no down-sizing of cast or production values that I could detect based on my memories of the original touring production that opened at the same theater in 2005. Beyond that, they've provided some top talent and, it seems, some amusing new takes on the material that kept it fresh for my fourth viewing of this show.

For the leads and key supporting roles, Wicked now sports a number of impressive casting choices. Let's start with Jenn Gambatese as Glinda. Ms. Gambatese seemed destined for great things when she starred in All Shook Up and probably would have, if her luck-of—the-draw had gotten her cast in more successful shows than that and Tarzan. She's a terrific Glinda, handling the more delicate demands of the soprano role together with a sure hand on the comic elements. As much as she easily nails Glinda's un-self-awareness by which she wrongly concludes she's the smart one in the room, Gambatese shows the character's growth while still maintaining some evidence of her goofiness. Playing Elphaba is a real find: relative newcomer Alison Luff, who understudied for the leads in Broadway's Scandalous and Ghost: The Musical. Luff gives a very nuanced performance, playing the character's initial awkwardness with comic skill and vocal expressiveness. While she doesn't match Idina Menzel's power on the highest high notes of "Defying Gravity," she has a flexibility and subtlety that gets a lot of mileage out of Stephen Schwartz's songs. She and Gambatese are a first-rate, totally Broadway-worthy pair of leads.

The tour's Wizard is none other than John Davidson—the TV star of the '60s and '70s who has gone on to do some nice musical theater work. His Wizard is amusingly bumbling and hapless and, though his songs aren't really a great vehicle for his voice, at times the big Davidson baritone we remember shines through. Madame Morrible is deliciously subtly wicked in the hands of soap opera star Kim Zimmer (The Guiding Light), playing the duplicitous headmistress with the delicacy of an Angela Lansbury back when that actress was still playing villainesses. Tom Flynn brings a similarly distinguished, British public-school quality to Dr. Dillamond.

Curt Hansen, who was last in Chicago for the first national tour of Next to Normal, is this company's Fiyero and he comes off very much the privileged kid Fiyero is meant to be. Hansen croons his songs in a very listenable boy-band style and, may I add, sexily fills out Fiyero's tight costume. As the less successful suitor Boq, Jesse J.P. Johnson (whom Chicago audiences have seen in Altar Boyz) gives enough teen angst and lovesickness to make Boq a significant character. He and Jaime Rosenstein, who lends a big, powerful voice to Nessarose, make more out of their tertiary characters than other actors I've seen in the roles before.

It seems to me that director Joe Mantello and his assistant Lisa Leguillou are focusing more on the comedy in the piece than I remember from earlier viewings and other casts. Some of the characters also are played more broadly than in previous years—Glinda even ditzier, Fiyero less mature, and the Wizard more hapless. It all lands, with Zimmer's more restrained Madame Morrible and Luff's very human Elphaba keeping the whole affair grounded as their co-stars work hard for their laughs. Beyond maintaining production values, one of the strengths of this durable show and a reason to keep coming back to it is the willingness of the producers and directors to cast such capable performers and let them shine in their own individual ways.

It's hard to believe that this "first national tour" is in the midst of its ninth year on the road, but given the efforts of all involved to keep it fresh, this show could travel its yellow brick road around the US for a long, long time.

Wicked will play the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago through December 21, 2013. For ticket information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com, any Broadway in Chicago or by phone at 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit http://www.wickedthemusical.com/.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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