Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Legendale: A New Musical
With its fifth visit to Cincinnati in less than twelve years, most audiences for this latest stop of the national tour of Wicked are likely to be returning fans of the show. However, every performance will also introduce some audience members to the magical phenomenon that's associated with the blockbuster hit.
Wicked is a quasi-prequel to The Wizard of Oz based on the novel by Gregory Maguire. The show focuses on the friendship between Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West), and Galinda (Glinda the Good), and provides an alternative backstory for the primary Oz tale. The book by Winnie Holzman is a smart, funny and moving one, supplying some hilarious lines, "wow" moments, and thought-provoking ideas as she plays with (or against) our familiarity with the famous 1939 film. Those we thought were evil might not be, and those we assumed were always good may just have the same flaws as the rest of us. Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) provides a tuneful score with witty wordplay that includes several instantly memorable songs which are perfectly suited to the story ("What Is this Feeling?" and "Thank Goodness"), along with breakout musical theater standards in "Popular," "Defying Gravity," and "For Good."
Director Joe Mantello deserves kudos for pulling such a large show into a focused package, while still delivering some powerful stage moments. There's a strong emotional pull, laugh-out loud humor, universal themes, and a good dose of eccentricity (this is Oz, after all). The athletic choreography by Wayne Cilento conveys the uniqueness associated with Oz, and Dan Micciche leads the talented 15-piece pit orchestra.
The design elements of Wicked are anything but subtle, with Eugene Lee's opulent scenic design featuring massive set pieces (large metal dragon, an ominous wizard's head), intricate designs on smaller items, and unique props. Also of high quality are Susan Hilferty's brilliantly detailed and varied costumes and Kenneth Posner's splendid theatrical lighting.
On press night, Jessica Vosk was out sick as Elphaba, and standby Chelsea Emma Franko went on in her place. Ms. Franko, in only her fourth ever performance in the role, seemed quite confident and at ease. She provides many effective acting choices, bringing an edginess to the part to a larger degree than other Cincinnati Elphabas before her. Chelsea's singing is quite strong in the upper register, but her lower notes could use some more power at times. As Glinda, Ginna Claire Mason presents the character at first as a sorority snob, vapid and shallow, switching to an apt mix of regality and brokenness in the second half of the show. Her singing is crystal clear throughout, and she garners many laughs during "Popular" without going overboard in the perky antics.
Jon Robert Hall brings handsome looks and solid acting chops to the role of Fiyero, and he's a talented vocalist as well. Broadway veterans Tom McGowan (a warm, grandfatherly Wizard) and Isabel Keating (a chew-the-scenery Madame Morrible) bring well-honed stage presence and timing to their roles. Worthwhile performances are likewise provided by the other supporting players: Harry Bouvy (Doctor Dillamond), Catherine Charlebois (Nessarose), and Sam Seferian (Boq). The hard-working chorus is all-around praiseworthy.
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.
Regardless of whether this is your first, fifth, or ninth time seeing Wicked, the show's magical stagecraft, universal story and themes, lavish designs, strong performances, and soaring score make it worth the journey to Oz.
Wicked continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through October 15, 2017. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information on the tour, visit http://www.wickedthemusical.com.