If you've been asleep for the last three years, you may not know thatWicked is based primarily on Gregory Maguire's novel of the same name, which provides a backstory to Frank Baum's novel and the classic MGM film The Wizard of Oz. The central characters are Elphaba (whom you may know as The Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (the Good Witch of the South), and there's a whole cast of supporting characters including their mutual love interest Fiyero, their teachers and schoolmates, Elphaba's family, and of course the Wizard himself. It does get confusing, but no need to sweat the details because the important story is the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda. It's not surprising that Wicked is a huge hit among pre-teen and teenage girls, since it's a story about two girls growing up and finding they had more in common than they thought; I particularly appreciate the fact that, unlike Dorothy Gale, they don't end up right back where they started. Part of the appeal of Wicked is that it is more sympathetic to the nonconformist Elphaba than to her popular but shallower peer Glinda: this is one show in which the story is not thrown to the prettiest girl on stage. And Wicked's appeal to the teenage market is not hurt by the fact that Maguire's novel was adapted by Winnie Holzman: her name may not be a household word, but she created the television series "My So-Called Life" and has written for a number of popular television programs, including "thirtysomething" and "The Wonder Years."
Is it a good show or a bad show? As in the question Glinda poses to Dorothy ("are you a good witch or a bad witch?" in case you are not up on your Wizard of Oz trivia), the answer is not as simple as the question would imply. On the one hand, the public is right: Wicked is an entertaining show and provides some of the best "big moments" I've ever experienced in a musicalIn fact, I'd sit through it all again just to see Elphaba's triumphant levitation in "Defying Gravity." In addition, the visual effects are often fantastic, the book can be appreciated on both the literal and metaphorical levels, and several of the songs have already become standards. Besides, who wouldn't want to see a musical about The Wizard of Oz, especially one in which the Wicked Witch finally gets her say? I don't know about you, but I grew up watching the annual broadcast of the movie on a tiny television screen, and I loved the story long before I understood the many layers of meaning present in the script.
On the other hand, the critics are also right. The story is needlessly confusing, exposition-heavy and tries to have it both ways. The dialogue relies too much on obvious tricks: adding extra syllables to common adjectives is funny about twice, then it's time to find a new joke. Aside from several power ballads and the character song "Popular," most of Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics are pedestrian, and much of the choreography and costuming seems to be an afterthought. Munchkins who are the same height as the other cast members don't have the desired dramatic effect, and adults costumed as flying monkeys are not particularly convincing. Most damning, the heavy reliance on technical effects sometimes overwhelms the human elements on stage, in which case we'd all just as well save our money and wait for the film version. I did have the unfortunate impression, more than once, that Wicked wants to be the next Miss Saigon (or, heaven forfend, the next Lion King) rather than the smart and funny musical it is at best. And I know that we have to make allowances for touring productions, but some of what should have been scary seemed cheap and silly instead, activating memories of the Stonehenge model from Spinal Tap.
But attending the theatre is an experience, not a series of checklists, and the experience of Wicked is greater than the sum of its parts, so it's no accident it has proven to be a critic-proof show. It's also the type of show which lends itself to duplication: although I regret not seeing Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in the original production, the roles of Glinda and Elphaba don't call for great individual interpretation so much as they require the actors to replicate a role which has already been created. The minor roles are even simpler: most are one-note, one-song characters which any number of professionally trained actors could make convincing. Having said that, Carmen Cusack really blew me away as Elphaba, and her performance alone makes this production worth seeing. If Katie Rose Clarke was a bit less captivating than I would have liked as Glinda, well everyone can't be Kristin. Alma Cuervo is great as the two-faced headmistress Madame Morrible, whose character takes on a positively Marie Antoinette cast (including the face powder) when she throws her loyalties to the Wizard. Unfortunately, Lee Wilkof doesn't make much of an impression as the Wizard, although his physical resemblance to Karl Rove adds yet another metaphorical dimension to his character's essential mendacity.
The standouts among the technical elements are the sets by Eugene Lee and lighting design by Kenneth Posner; together they create a many-layered world full of visual interest, and facilitate the interplay between the ordinary world where people are concerned with getting a date for the school dance and the magical world where monkeys sprout wings and witches fly on broomsticks. Costume design is much more disappointing: besides the fact that the citizens of Oz seem to have inherited the peasants' costumes from Les Miserables, too often the show relies on the obvious device of dressing most of the cast in variations of the same costume, while the stars wear something completely different. So, while most of the Shiz University students wear green and white school uniforms (which it must be said are appealingly demented in an S&M fantasy sort of way), Glinda (or Galinda, at that point in her career) enters wearing all white, and Elphaba all black. Differentiating characters by costume is a classic stage technique but one which is usually executed with greater subtlety: the audience is not composed entirely of six-year-olds, and we don't need quite that much of a hint as to which characters we should pay attention to. The choreography is particularly disappointing, as it consists largely of people running around waving their arms yet never filling the stage, producing the impression (despite a large supporting cast) that Oz is seriously underpopulated.
By the way, if you are interested in the story behind the 2003-2004 Tony race for Best Musical, check out the documentary Show Business: The Road to Broadway by Dori Berenstein. It's available on DVD and follows the four nominees (Wicked, Avenue Q, Taboo and Caroline, or Change) from pre-production meetings through the awards ceremony, with lots of rehearsal and backstage footage and regular commentaries by some of the most influential theatre critics in the business, most of whom got it wrong.
Wicked will be playing at the Fox through January 6, 2008. Ticket information is available from 314-534-1111 or from www.fabulousfox.com. The Fox is running a special ticket lottery for Wicked in which a limited number of orchestra tickets will be sold for $25: to enter the lottery, come to the box office 2 hours before curtain time for the show you want to see.
Next up at the Fox will be Disney's High School Musical, playing January 9-13, 2008.
Direction: Joe Mantello