Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of The Mystery of Edwin Drood
A quasi-prequel to The Wizard of Oz, Wicked is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire. The musical focuses on the friendship between Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West), and Galinda (Glinda The Good), and provides an alternative backstory for the well-known Oz tale. Winnie Holzman's book is a smart, funny, and moving one, supplying some hilarious lines, "wow" moments, and thought-provoking concepts as she plays with (or rather against) our familiarity with the famous 1939 film. Who we thought was evil might not be, and those we assumed were always good, may just have the same flaws as the rest of us.
Wicked's score by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin), contains a number of instantly memorable songs which are perfectly suited to the story ("What Is This Feeling?", "Thank Goodness,"), along with breakout musical theater standards such as "Popular", "Defying Gravity", and "For Good."
Director Joe Mantello deserves kudos for bringing such a large show together into a focused package, while still delivering many 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, angular choreography by Wayne Cilento conveys the uniqueness associated with Oz, and Evan Roider leads the talented 14-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.
Talia Suskauer provides many effective acting choices as Elphaba, and shows off an impressive singing voice throughout. Her stage presence and empathetic take on the role are strong assets to the production. As Glinda, Allison Baily embodies the role as a spoiled valley-girl brat, but also conveys a well-suited emotional arc as the story unfolds and provides apt vocals. She also has lots of fun during "Popular," thanks to some playful antics.
Curt Hansen supplies very clear and pleasing vocals as Fiyero, and likewise shows the transformation of the character as the story progresses. With a young cast in general, it's a delight to see two venerable actors such as Cleavant Derricks (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and Clifton Davis (Doctor Dillamond) in supporting roles, and providing a welcomed level of theatrical expertise. Mr. Derricks won a Tony Award for his role in Dreamgirls 39 years ago, and Mr. Davis was nominated for a Tony 49 years ago for The Two Gentlemen of Verona! That's a wealth of experience and it shows in their strong performances.
Worthwhile performances are likewise provided by the other supporting players: Amanda Fallon Smith (Nessarose), Sharon Sachs (Madame Morrible), and DJ Plunkett (Boq). The hardworking chorus is all-around praiseworthy, and it's great seeing CCM grad Matt Densky in several featured moments.
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 backstory of the witches and other main characters, and The Wizard of Oz the story from Dorothy's limited point of view.
Whether this is your first, sixth, or (like me) tenth 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 runs through December 5, 2021, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-621-2787 or visit cincinnati.broadway.com. For more information on the tour, visit wickedthemusical.com/tickets/#tour.