Nothing seems to teach me as much about theater as seeing different productions of the same piece. In this case, when the production is such a close replica of what I'd previously seen – on Broadway, with the original cast, the night before the 2004 Tonys – the differences and the lessons are subtler. They're as much about what the audience and the venue give to the performers as about what the performers give to the audience.
Kate Reinders and Ana Gasteyer
Wicked's been in town - first with the national touring company and now with the sit-down cast - for nearly three months now. It's been a pretty tough ticket the whole time, so I suspect the sort of repeat visiting that had been going on in New York by the time I saw it there hasn't entirely begun yet in Chicago. I had never sensed the excitement at a musical that I felt at the Gershwin in June of 2004 before the curtain even rose. I'm not sure if it was the cheering as the house lights began to dim or something even less tangible, but there was an undeniable energy from the audience that night I didn't find on July 19, 2005 in Chicago. Other explanations for that might be that the audience here had fewer young people in it and maybe was just more of a tired weeknight crowd. Whatever the reasons, the cast and the piece had to work harder in Chicago to earn the audience's involvement.
Though the Oriental - a former movie palace from the 1920s whose way-over-the-top design was restored in 1998 - takes its audiences immediately into a fantasy world, it may compete a bit with the audience's initial exposure to the fantastic design of the production. Even Wicked's mechanical dragon barely stands out next to the theater's ornate décor. The lack of big-name stars makes a difference as well. Kate Reinders' opening entrance as Glinda of course didn't spark the kind of excitement it did on Broadway when the actress entering was Kristin Chenoweth. That this Chicago performance may have had less of a sense of "event" than the one I attended on Broadway may not be all bad, though. This time, I was able to concentrate more on the writing and the performances, which in Chicago seemed to be more in service of the material than in the pursuit of the Tony.
Ana Gasteyer brings a new perspective to Elphaba, giving a somewhat more nuanced performance than the one by Idina Menzel that I remember. Gasteyer's Elphaba shows not only the toughness but the latent rebelliousness and underlying loneliness of the green girl that arrives at Shiz. Later, as she understands the Wizard's plans for her, she shows the disillusionment resulting from her realization that her world isn't what she'd thought it was and her fear over making a choice she never wanted or expected to have to make. Gasteyer is no less funny than we would have expected. The news is she's a terrific actress, and even if she doesn't quite have Menzel's power throughout her entire range, she makes the musical moments work.
Kate Reinders suffers a bit more by comparison to her original Broadway cast counterpart, but she gives a perfectly solid, well-sung and funny performance. She may not have quite the star stature of her predecessor, but again, that may serve to bring the two characters back into a better balance than it did with Chenoweth and Menzel. This time, the actress playing Elphaba is the bigger name, which is appropriate as Elphaba is the pivotal character. Similarly, Kristoffer Cusick, who understudied on Broadway for the now-legendary Norbert Leo Butz as Fiyero, may not be finding quite as many laughs as Mr. Butz did, but Cusick makes a more romantic maverick Prince, and brings a terrific singing voice to the part. Telly Leung, of Broadway's recent revivals of Pacific Overtures and Flower Drum Song, is earnest as the Munchkin Boq, and Steven Skybell is a sympathetic Doctor Dillamond.
The remaining principals are cast with veterans from Chicago. Steppenwolf's versatile Rondi Reed plays Madame Morrible in her best Elsa Lanchester voice. Heidi Kettenring successfully fleshes out the smaller role of Nessarose. Gene Weygandt, a Chicago-based actor who originated the role of Paul in big on Broadway, is the Wizard. He's a smooth song and dance man, and plays the Wizard as a common guy with unwanted leadership responsibilities. I would like to have seen him bring out a bit more of the darker qualities that would be consistent with the evil Wicked's Wizard does.
Oddly, though Wicked's producers have made much of the "local content" in this "sit-down" Chicago cast, they've put together a cast with strong Broadway credentials. In fact, the Broadway resumes of this cast are arguably as strong as those of the casts on Broadway and on tour now. In its performers and its production values, easily equal to those of the original, this version ultimately delivers a fully Broadway-quality big musical production. With Ana Gasteyer's fresh take on Elphaba, fans of the piece will enjoying revisiting Wicked with this company. Judging from the reaction of the audience – easily won over by the end of the first act – this cast will win over the first-timers as well. In a few months I suspect we'll start to see some new hordes of teenage girls back for their fifteenth visit, screaming as the lights dim.
Wicked is in an open-ended run at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theater, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are available at the any Broadway in Chicago box office, by phone (312-902-1400), or online at ticketmaster.com. More information at www.wickedthemusical.com/chicago.