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 a uniquely interesting back story for 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. It 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. We find that the Wicked Witch isn't all that wicked, and Galinda isn't always so good. One weak area is the need for clarity in regard to the passage 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 Maguire's novel, there are fewer political and darker elements in the musical, making it more a story of friendship and female empowerment.
Wicked's score is a mostly wonderful one, with the exception of just a couple of lackluster tunes. Written by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin), some songs 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," where 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, Alison Luffs brings a nerdy, yet free-spirited quirkiness to the role and is endearing enough to gain the necessary empathy for the character. She infuses some jazzy riffs on "The Wizard and I" and supplies powerful singing (including some pleasant, not over-the-top pop vocalizing) for many of the show's most rousing songs. Gina Beck isn't one of the stronger singers to play Galinda (at least not as demonstrated at the performance I attended), but is superb with the acting requirements of the role. She gets lots of laughs with Galinda's perky, self-absorbed, and zany antics (best on display during "Popular"), but also shows the pensive, thoughtful nature of the good witch during the more serious moments.
Nick Adams (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) is a skilled dancer, and a good fit vocally and acting-wise as Fiyero. Broadway vet Alison Fraser (Falsettos, The Secret Garden) makes some interesting and effective choices as Madame Morrible. As the Wizard, "Saturday Night Live" alum Tim Kazurinsky isn't a good singer, but his bookish, manipulative presentation of the character works well. Worthwhile performances are likewise provided by the other supporting players: Tom Flynn (Doctor Dillamond), Jenny Florkowski (Nessarose) and Jesse JP Johnson (Boq). The extremely hard-working chorus members shine in all performance aspects 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 theatergoers (many of whom are 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. Andrew Graham leads a talented 15-piece pit orchestra.
The design elements of Wicked are those of enormous spectacle, yet 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, and an effective use of sliding panels and towers of gears. 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 "I'm Not That Girl", "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.
This high-flying musical continues to be a remarkable crowd-pleaser, and with good reason. The talented cast, top-notch design and direction, winning story, and memorable score bring audiences back time and time again.
Wicked continues in Cincinnati through March 23, 2014, at the Procter & Gamble Hall - Aronoff Center for the Arts. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 982-2787. For more information on the touring production, visit www.wickedthemusical.com.