Wicked Needs The Wizard’s Touch
Also see Richard's review of The Best of PlayGround's 10 Minute Plays
Glinda the good witch and Elphaba the misaligned, bad witch come roaring into the Curran Theatre in this glitzy and sassy Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman musical. This is a work in progress, and it needs to be seriously trimmed down. The musical needs more heart and less glitter to make it work successfully. At present, Wicked runs a little under three hours, and exhibits style over substance. After a certain point, you really don’t care about the characters, since they have become cartoon-like. Many of Stephen Schwartz’s songs are repetitious with no hummable melodies. There is a ’70s feel about the songs, and they sound like many you have heard before.
Kristin Chenoweth and Cast of Wicked
The opening is quite sensational with a large winged dragon over the stage procenium breathing smoke with eyes lighting up red (I don't know why they used the dragon since it seems to have nothing to do with the show). We see fog, flying monkeys and an enormous, wobbling black witch's hat as a group of dancers and singers come out onto the stage to celebrate the Wicked Witch’s death. Down from the ceiling of the stage in a lighted bubble descends animated, sprightly Glinda (Kristin Chenoweth). Our good witch announces the “meltification” of the Wicked Witch and the crowd sings “No One Mourns the Wicked.” This is a great start for the musical - it looks like it's going to be fun. Glinda has a story to tell of a time before we “despised” this wicked witch named Elphaba (Idina Menzel). The musical then goes back to when Glinda and Elphaba met. It turns out that Elphaba is misunderstood and she is shunned by the good citizens because she is - horrors - Green (this sounds familiar in our own American history of the Civil Rights Movement).
Glinda, who is spoiled, shallow and vain, accidentally becomes a roommate of Elphaba at Shiz College. Glinda is also a first class ditz, to make matters worse. It is antipathy at first sight, but a true relationship blossoms between the two and the musical proceeds. Many scenes get in the way with subplots involving a professor who is a talking goat, a domineering college dean (Carole Shelley) who is a “bigot,” a prince charming named Fiyero (Norbert Leo Butz) who is not sure which witch he loves, a tottering old sly wizard (Robert Morse) and a bunch of monkeys jumping about the stage. One of the scenes that should be cut is the entrance of Fiyero, singing “Which Way’s the Party?” with terrible Wayne Cilento choreography that is straight out of Grease or Footloose. Another strange scene is at the Emerald City with everyone dressed up in crazy green outfits like something out of Cirque du Soleil. The choreography is a weird concoction of funky dancing. I thought for a minute the Riverdancers would appear.
Wicked is worth seeing, if only for Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. Both are truly Broadway divas, and each has her own song style. These two are tops on the best material and even sparkle during the low moments of the long musical. Chenoweth is the personification of vivacious respectability with an energetic voice, and she has the ability to show hurt, unkindness, narcissism, incredulousness, or malice through a beaming smile. She is utterly hilarious as she takes her faultlessness for granted. Her rendition of “Popular” is uproarious, and a duet with Elphaba, “For Good,” is beautifully sung.
Idina Menzel belts out “I’m Not the Girl” with great gusto and brings her towering voice again to the song “No Good Deed” in the second act. She gives an appealing performance, and it is my hope that her role is enlarged when the show comes to New York. Norbert Leon Butz is good, but he is miscast in the role. In “Which Way's the Party?,” it seems like he is in the wrong musical. He gives a good account of himself in the second act in the duet called “As Long As You're Mine” with Menzel.
Robert Morse looks more than a litle worse for wear as the Wizard, and his makeup makes him look like he is ready for a casket. He still has that Bobby Morse voice and can still do a little soft shoe in the vaudeville number, “Wonderful.” It is a charming old fashioned bit of shtick to watch. Carole Shelley ably fills out the role of the scheming college dean.
Wicked does manage to put in topical satire that reflects on today’s government. There are many sly references to the present U.S. administration. There are also many funny mispronunciations by the good citizens of the land. We see the beginnings of the straw man, cowardly lion, tin man; and Dorothy (off stage) is very cleverly brought into the second act.
Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel
The set by Eugene Lee is outstanding with a mechanical look. Clock gears are placed all over the stage which apparently means something to the readers of Gregory Maguire’s novel of the same name. However, since I am one of the majority who have never read the book, they meant nothing to me. The enormous mechanical Wizard head is effective; it is nothing like the wonderful mechanical head of the Wizard in the film. The Emerald City looks like a St Patrick’s Day Parade, and some of the costumes look like they came from “The Rocky Horror Show.”
Kenneth Posner’s light design has some nice touches. The 23 piece orchestra under the direction of Stephen Oremus is very loud. Joe Mantello, who just won a Tony for Take Me Out gives the production a fast paced energy but needs to seriously trim back some scenes. At best, the show is good but not great, and it has many problems to solve before it comes to Broadway.
Wicked plays through June 29 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com.
Photos: Joan Marcus