Kendra Kassebaum and Stephanie J. Block
If the goal of a first national touring company is to replicate the experience felt in the Broadway theater, the tour version of Wicked succeeds greatly. The spectacular (as in "of the nature of a spectacle") production as seen on Broadway has been duplicated, packed onto 17 trucks, and transported to the Benedum Center. This show already has a ready and waiting audience of young fans across the country, due to a groundswell of emotional identification with the characters and a pop-ish score. That this show has touched a younger generation of potential theatregoers may please some and perplex others, but it seems it will keep Wicked afloat for a very long time - particularly since it succeeds on tour as well as on Broadway.

The story, Winnie Holzman's lite version of Gregory Maguire's novel of the same name, follows the familiar characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West. It's part back-story and part behind-the-scenes story of the much beloved tale most familiar through the 1939 film starring Judy Garland. The premise of the back-story is interesting - the Good was not so good and the Wicked was a good-hearted victim of discrimination. How this story is developed is second to the appeal of the two lead characters and the integration of the story with the Oz film plot ("hey - there's the Tin man"). Glinda, nee Galinda, is a popular, spoiled, and shallow young witch. At college, she is forced to room with the outcast, green-skinned Elphaba. It's no surprise that they conflict greatly, but eventually connect. Elphaba rises heroically (literally, at one point) above the mistreatment she receives from every direction due to green skin tone. Aside from a cop-out ending, the story has potential and it's possible to see how youngsters who feel different (and who doesn't, during adolescence?) can identify with Elphaba and the idea that it's what's inside that counts.

Stephanie J. Block does a tremendous job as Elphaba. She presents a modest and appealing character, and it's easy to root for her. In great voice, Block sings with emotion and doesn't get too histrionic in her acting or singing, though some songs in the Stephen Schwartz score are written to draw at least a little a screeching belt (and many in the audience love it). As Glinda, Kendra Kassebaum seems a bit trapped by the original characterization of actress Kristin Chenoweth; gestures and voice tone often seem very much like Chenoweth's previous portrayals - all the way back to her Sally in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Within that, Kassebaum seems to be trying to restrain the flaky quality of her character. I would like to see her go a little more over the top in her own way.

Commendable supporting actors include Carole Shelley (a member of the original Broadway cast) who has created a delightful character in Madame Morrible. At times devious, at other times downright scary, it's something to relish when Madame takes the stage. David Garrison plays the nearly thankless role of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and talent and dedicated portrayal rise above the weakest material in the show (what can one say about a character who is the last to realize a very obvious plot point, one which the audience has been hit over the head with throughout the show?). Jenna Leigh Green is able to create a strong and notable character from her wheelchair as Nessarose, Elphaba's sister. Green seethes and whines delectably, and sings in a strong, vibrant voice (she is an understudy for the role of Elphaba - it would be fun to see her take on that character).

The strongest supporting performer is the set (by Eugene Lee) and staging. It's dazzling, elaborate and ... yes, spectacular. Kenneth Posner's lighting design is miraculous, transforming the stage time after time. It's due to his work that the big moment, when Elphaba flies, is as impressive as it is - much more effective than what I saw on Broadway. That said, there are some pretty flimsy staging elements as well, including the depiction of the demise of Elphaba, done in shadowplay. After seeing the glaring dragon overhead, the flying monkeys, Elphaba's big scene, and the stunning Emerald city, this scene seems low-budget and amateurish. Costumes by Susan Hilferty are still unique - and at times odd. By the way people dress, we definitely know we're not in Kansas. If you like special effects and spectacle, this production will certainly be your cup of tea.

Wicked continues at The Bendum Center through March 5. For schedule and ticket information, visit www.pgharts.org/.

Photo © Joan Marcus

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