Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
The element of cultural phenomenon turns out to be both a strength and a weakness for this touring production. Signature elements of the gorgeous design work, from Eugene Lee's clockwork set to Susan Hilferty's steampunk costumes (both of whom won Tonys for their work), feel like old friends by now and retain their thrill when seen in person. Set pieces like the truly impressive mechanical Wizard of Oz head get their own applause. And of course, the score by Broadway veteran Stephen Schwartz, probably the ultimate reason this musical has won over so many of us, has demonstrated its staying power; "For Good" is one of the best eleven o'clock numbers written in the modern era, and "Defying Gravity" is one of the best first-act closers, with its absolutely arresting final image of Elphaba in the sky. The audience knows all the words and is silently mouthing them along with the performers even if the leads are frequently being drowned out by the orchestra (a problem I've noted with other touring musical productions at DPAC, which makes me think there must be something challenging about the acoustics in that house).
While the actors who originate musical theater roles frequently cast long shadows, making it difficult for audiences to avoid holding all other comers to that standard, in the case of Wicked, with its two career-defining performances from Kristin Chenoweth (who got a Tony nomination) and Idina Menzel (who won), the shadow is particularly long and heavy. Olivia Valli (Elphaba) and Celia Hottenstein (Glinda) are fine in this production, with Valli largely rising to the challenges of a particularly demanding singing role and Hottenstein earning every laugh with her comedic chops, but I couldn't avoid comparing their performances which, to be clear, I'm sure I would have felt with any two performers.
Wicked, then, is the cherished family recipe that no one makes quite as well as Grandma did, but everyone is happy to tuck in for anyway because it's enjoyable even in a lesser form. Something I enjoyed this time around was noticing the way this musical has so woven itself into our cultural fabric that it seems to resonate with other cultural moments before it and after: Madame Morrible (a superior Kathy Fitzgerald) is an archetypal sister to both Better Midler's campy performance in Hocus Pocus and Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games. If Elphaba's awkward choreography isn't an homage to Elaine's iconic dance from Seinfeld, it might as well be. (Wayne Cilento's choreography is otherworldly and may come off a bit puzzling.) The first appearance of the citizens of Oz in their green finery owes a debt to "The Emerald City Sequence" from The Wiz. And the Wizard (Timothy Shew) evokes both P.T. Barnum and certain modern politicians who will be left unnamed.
Certain bare spots from the original Broadway production remain. Several full-length numbers are performed on an empty stage in a bed of rolling fog and feel noticeably lacking in visual interest in contrast to the level of spectacle other numbers deliver. And the themes of totalitarianism and, well, ethnic cleansing, never quite come into focus. But clearly, audiences have long since forgiven these weak points, and I won't pretend I didn't enjoy this production. This, after all, is the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history, with no signs of gravity keeping it down.
Wicked runs through through September 17, 2023, presented by Truist Broadway at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC. For tickets and information, please visit www.dpacnc.com, www.ticketmaster.com, or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person, or call 919-680-2787. For more information on the tour, visit wickedthemusical.com.
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz