Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Caroline, or Change
Normally, if a city is getting the national tour of a musical for the third time in less than six years, there would be groaning of repetition and lackluster ticket sales. But when the show is Wicked, you won't find much complaining, and the constant sound of sliding credit cards can be heard at the box office. With a solid cast, design elements that continue to be some of the best in all of theater, and a story and songs that connect with theatergoers, Cincinnati audiences have much to look forward to during this three-plus week run of the blockbuster hit.
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 an interesting back story for the 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. The show 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 area in need of improvement is clarification 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 a few 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, Mamie Parris conveys the tough exterior of someone used to being shunned, but also as one eager to belong and hopeful of better things ahead of her. She provides nicely textured, clear and powerful vocals to many of the show's most rousing songs. Ms. Parris also makes strong acting choices throughout, making Elphaba the empathetic character she needs to be. Amanda Jane Cooper does extremely well in the comedic moments of Galinda, with her spoiled and self-absorbed antics during "Popular" being especially hilarious. Ms. Cooper sings with great clarity, though she used a lot of "head voice" on the upper notes on press night (possibly due to a cold). Even with this approach, her singing was sufficient throughout and she shows the growing maturity and emotional arc of Galinda skillfully.
Timothy A. Fitz-Gerald, an understudy for Fiyero, brings handsome looks and solid acting chops to the role. Though he's a fine singer in general, his voice isn't a perfect fit for the character. Broadway veterans Mark Jacoby (a fun, showbizzy and grandfatherly Wizard) and Liz McCartney (an aptly menacing and domineering Madame Morrible) bring well-honed stage presence and timing to their roles. Worthwhile performances are likewise provided by the other supporting players: Paul Slade Smith (Doctor Dillamond), Stephanie Brown (Nessarose), and Justin Brill (Boq). The hard-working chorus is praiseworthy 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 the many 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. P. Jason Yarcho leads the talented 15-piece pit orchestra.
The design elements of Wicked are those of enormous spectacle, and 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. 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 "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.
Whether this is a return visit or your first time seeing Wicked, its universal story and themes, magical stagecraft, top-notch design, strong performances, and soaring score make it a worth the journey to Oz.
Wicked continues in Cincinnati through November 26, 2011, 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/.