Wicked Book by Winnie Holzman. Music by Stephen Schwartz. Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Joe Mantello. Musical staging by Wayne Cilento. Set design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Tony Meola. Musical Director Stephen Oremus. Orchestrations by William David Brohn. Dance arrangements by Jim Abbott. Cast: Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Joel Grey, Carole Shelley, Norbert Leo Butz, Michelle Federer, William Youmans, Christopher Fitzgerald, Ioana Alfonso, Ben Cameron, Cristy Candler, Melissa Bell Chait, Marcus Choi, Kristoffer Cusick, Kathy Deitch, Melissa Fahn, Rhett George, Kristen Lee Gorski, Manuel Herrera, Kisha Howard, L.J. Jellison, Sean McCourt, Corrine McFadden, Mark Myars, Jan Neuberger, Walter Winston O'Neil, Andrew Palermo, Andy Pellick, Michael Seelbach, Lorna Ventura, Derrick Williams.
Depicting the façade and inner workings of the Time Dragon Clock, a predictor or perhaps moderator of fate, the cogs and complex weight systems comprising Eugene Lee's set for Wicked , the new musical at the Gershwin, are unavoidably prophetic: this is a thoroughly mechanical and unmagical musical.
To readers of Gregory Maguire's original 1995 novel of the same title that shouldn't come as much surprise. His Wicked examined the tortured history of the green-skinned Witch of the West (whom he called Elphaba), from her friendship with the facile good witch Glinda to the tragic losses that drove her to become, in many people's eyes, "wicked." Maguire's writing is unrelentingly contemporary, framing events of L. Frank Baum's original books (over a century old) in a modern context that ignored or erased every vestige of magic, invention, and entertainment present in the originals. But Maguire's novel works because of its completely implacable nature and its total defiance of traditional ideas about Baum's setting and characters.
The musical, lacking Maguire's conviction, is determined to be all things to all people to find the broadest possible audience of Oz lovers, Oz haters, and passive bystanders. Though the basic story of Elphaba and her crusade against the increasingly totalitarian rule of the Wizard has been retained for the musical, the lack of a singular vision or firm artistic hand makes the show, unlike the book, a muddled, unfocused enterprise.
Director Joe Mantello is demonstrating once again (after last year's A Man of No Importance) that he has little or no working knowledge of how or why a musical is different from a straight play. He can't make dialogue scenes between numbers lilt and sing, he doesn't understand how musicals move or should be paced, he doesn't seem to have acknowledged how awful the "musical staging" by Wayne Cilento (doing a bad John Carrafa imitation) is, and it probably never occurred to him that Kristin Chenoweth (a neutron star of concentrated theatrical energy), in the secondary role of Glinda, might draw attention from the less flashy central role of Elphaba and the less exciting actress (Idina Menzel) playing her.
Most importantly, Mantello simply does not know how to derive better work from his collaborators. Neophyte librettist Winnie Holzman needed all the direction she could get to alleviate some of her book's incoherent and unstructured plotting and lame jokes ("It seems the artichoke is steamed," and "I don't see why you can't just teach us history instead of always harping on the past," to quote two examples from one scene), but she didn't receive it. As for composer Stephen Schwartz, this Broadway veteran should have known better, but has instead composed the most negligible and forgettable score of his career. How the man responsible for shows like Pippin and Godspell was unable to creatively illuminate the slightest bit of personality or drive in the show's characters - let alone write one memorable song! - will likely stand as this Broadway season's single greatest mystery. (At least Wicked's musical director, Stephen Oremus, and his 23-piece orchestra are above reproach.)
There's little point in dwelling on the performances; when the actors succeed, it's generally in spite of the material rather than because of it. Chenoweth, charmingly vacant as Glinda, comes close, and has a way with jokes and songs that few Broadway stars today do, but it's impossible to buy much of what she says or sings because there's just nothing to sell. Joel Grey's Wizard is stuck with the show's two worst numbers, but forces one, "Wonderful," to work just only because, as a seasoned pro, he knows his way around a vaudeville turn. Carole Shelley, as his partner in crime, has even less to work with but compensates as best she can. Christopher Fitzgerald as the munchkin Boq and Michelle Federer as Elphaba's sister (the future Wicked Witch of the East) provide the show's only grounding emotional moments.
Elphaba, reduced from austere individualist to milquetoast reactionary, allows Menzel plenty of high belting, but few dramatic opportunities to steal the show away from the insuperable Chenoweth. (Menzel feels like a supporting actress, and it wouldn't be surprising if the awards reflect this come spring.) Norbert Leo Butz has pepped up dying shows in the past (Thou Shalt Not, anyone?) but is lost in the depths of Elphaba's heroically underwritten love interest, Fiyero. As a result, Menzel and Butz have no chemistry, and their scenes together are among the show's most trying.
Visually, Wicked is a wonder to behold - is this where Mantello's attention was the whole time? Susan Hilferty has designed scores of distinctive and characterful costumes for Munchkins, flying monkeys, and Emerald City denizens (the first scene there, with the entire stage is swathed in green, is an impressive sight). Kenneth Posner's lighting designs are expansive in number, hue, and range of activity. Lee's colorful, industrial sets incorporate all manner of theatrical devices to suggest a wealth of locations, and do it with an invigorating style missing most other places in the production.
Lee's work at least helps you get the full value for your theatregoing dollar that the show's other elements deny, but so did the sets for last season's megaflop Dance of the Vampires. Whatever else that show may have been, it was never boring; it's harder to say that about Wicked , the ultimate whitewashed example of how a musical written to pander can even fail at that when it has no centralized guiding force.