(Please be advised that this review contains plot spoilers.)
What surprises me the most about my return visit to Wicked after three plus years is that I found the piece to be much more satisfying than my first time. I think it is most likely because in the intervening time, I have gotten much more familiar with the score, and having seen and made peace with what made it to the stage, I could relax and enjoy and take in everything this huge musical has to offer. That liberation, free from trying to figure it out, think about what it means and zeroing in on its flaws, makes the whole Oz experience much more fun and emotional. In short, familiarity for me strips away much of the critic in me and allows me to just see the show with an "it is what it is" frame of mind, rather than a "it could have been so much more" disappointment.
Which brings me to what pleases me most about my return visit to the Gershwin Theatre. I am thrilled at just how remarkably well the whole thing has held up, particularly for a crowd-pleaser that is entering its eighth season on Broadway next month. Many a show - Cats and Les Miserables come readily to mind - in that same position in the past got to the point where it was a pale imitation of the original. Not the case with Wicked; no, this show is as crisp, fresh and exciting as it was in its opening days. And all of that has as much to do with the content and staging as any of the current performances.
"One Short Day"
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the cavernous Gershwin is the sheer size and magnitude of Eugene Lee's Tony-winning set, which covers the proscenium and extends far into the audience. A curious blend of mechanics (wheels and cogs and metals) and earthiness (straw and wooden beams and tangled undergrowth), the set calls to mind instantly the duality of Dorothy's rural Kansas and the urban progress of The Emerald City. Of course, this is not The Wizard of Oz, and the Land of Oz has the same duality, but the design, and in fact the entire production, has the original Frank Baum book and the classic MGM film in mind from start to finish. It is the hook that bridges the gap between what we know going in and the new reality we are about to learn. This smart duality - countrified Americana and other-worldly Oziana - is carried out in every set, costume and lighting effect in Wicked, a show that has an overabundance of ideas and themes. The consistency of the design elements adds to the clarity of the production that I'm sure most patrons don't even realize, but subliminally know. Tony winner Susan Hilferty's costumes, another curious mix of what we know - the iconic wicked witch's hat and black dress/cape, Glinda's fairy like blue gown that so bulbously extends from her waist - and the new world of Oz - where things look much like 19th century American garb, crossed with an ultra modern, cut at odd angles look - that is both jarring and comfortable at once. In short, these design elements speak to what the show is all about, literally and thematically: what we think we know isn't exactly as it seems.
Top: Kathy Fitzgerald as Madame Morrible
Bottom: Alex Brightman and Jenny Fellner as Boq and Nessarose
The lavishness and the magnitude of the physical production also gives audiences what it thinks it craves: a larger than life extravaganza known as the Broadway musical. The production numbers (quirkily provided by Wayne Cilento) and the very focused almost spare direction by Joe Mantello work for both camps of theatre goers: the clarity and spectacle please the occasional theatre-goer/tourist, while giving the more thoughtful, studied theatre-goer something to chew on mentally. The exact same thing could be said for Stephen Schwartz' score, a blend of startling huge numbers ("No One Mourns the Wicked"), snappy production numbers ("Dancing Through Life" and "One Short Day") and in this age of American Idol, histrionic power ballads ("For Good" and "Defying Gravity"). Then there are the more traditional musical theater numbers like "Popular" and "What is This Feeling." But of more interest to me are those numbers that serve multiple purposes: thematic, character driven numbers whose pleasing to the ear quality almost makes you not notice the heft of Schwartz' lyrics, which I think have been vastly underrated: "Not That Girl," "Thank Goodness," and "No Good Deed." Indeed, like everything else, the score offers the best of both worlds in a toe-tapping, hummable package.
Winnie Holzman's book continues to be problematic for me, though. There are more holes in the plot than a slice of Swiss cheese. It crams many themes into too slight a script, while major plot points are glossed over and run through; I am sure there are many things the audience misses or happen so fast that they have no idea they happened. Do people realize that Morrible causes the tornado that kills the Wicked Witch of the East? Or that Elphaba doesn't really melt in water, as evidenced by the fact that she stands for several minutes in a rain storm? There are, to be fair, a lot of poignant moments, sharp character observations and plenty of witty moments in the script, and it must have felt impossible to pare down the source material - the very dense and literary Wicked by Gregory Maguire.
(Top) Andy Karl as Fiyero and P.J. Benjamin as the Wizard
(Bottom) Andy Karl and Mandy Gonzalez
All of those elements are unchangeable, and are what they are and forever will be. The constant variable, and that which causes fans to return time after time, is the casting. Every time a new pair of witches or a new Madame Morrible or Fiyero takes the stage, fans Tweet and blog and Facebook their fingers off assessing the pros and cons of each new actor. In most cases, the actors need only offer a close approximation of the original to appease most of the fan base. But serious Ozian fans nitpick each and every acting choice as if they were the director. Such is the way of life in the 21st century. I suppose the fact that this very review now exists does the same. But I am not a huge Wicked fan - it still wouldn't make my top 20 shows of the last decade - but I do immensely admire the show and enjoy it more every time I see it, be it on tour or on Broadway. I'm now on my 4th set of principals including the original cast, the original National Tour cast, another Broadway company, and this current set. So how do they stack up? (I will NOT be comparing Elphabas or Fiyeros, but I will evaluate each on their effectiveness in the current whole.)
A long time Dr. Dillamond, this was not my first time seeing Timothy Britten Parker in the role, but he has created an exceptionally well-rounded character, especially considering the few lines and part of a song that he gets to sing. His is a small, but pivotal role, and he plays it well, evoking indignation and sympathy from both Elphaba and the audience. And he eats a large piece of paper (he is a goat, after all) without water and still manages to sing! Not bad! Another small but pivotal role is that of Munchkin, Boq. To be completely honest, I've seen a wide range of Boqs, from maddeningly annoying to dull as beige, and so it is wonderful to report that Alex Brightman does a pretty remarkable job at acting star-struck and growing up into a rage and bitterness without annoying the hell out of me. He is perky and cute as a Munchkin should be, but as his character grows, so does the actor who seems to mature into a man before our eyes. Interestingly, he has a ton of charisma, and one finds oneself paying more attention to him than one expects to, and that is a good thing.
Katie Rose Clarke: "Thank Goodness"
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Andy Karl, who is beyond dull as Fiyero. Please know that Mr. Karl is one of my absolute favorite character actors on Broadway today, and when I read that he would be playing this role, I literally thought, "he is perfect for Fiyero." Boy was I wrong. He doesn't even swagger. Rather, it feels like he is bored with the role and is just walking through it. Though he improves greatly in act two - the actor in him can't help but rise to the more complex material of the second half, I guess - the final payoff is much less satisfying with him in the role. On the plus side, Jenny Fellner is the first actress I've seen to play Nessarose who manages to pull of both the pitiful sweetness of a crippled girl in act one and self-absorbed and, importantly, wicked woman in act two.
P.J. Benjamin as the Wizard of Oz, gives a very intelligent performance, one that exudes a genuine fatherly vibe, all while making his darker side and manipulations just as believable. He actually sings his songs, too, which is a nice change from the talk-singing of most of his predecessors. His partner in crime, Madame Morrible, is now played by the superb Kathy Fitzgerald, whose charm, natural wit and almost motherly bearing is fun, which makes her evil transformation all the more delicious. She is downright, um, wicked, in act two and I think she may just be the best of all the Madame Morribles I've seen.
Gonzalez and Clarke
Of course, the main attraction and the pairing that ultimately determines whether or not Wicked is a success is that of the two main witches, Glinda and Elphaba. The more outwardly fun part, Glinda, is now being played by Katie Rose Clarke, in only her second Broadway role (her first was Clara in Light in the Piazza). While her take on the role owes much of its success to the original, Kristin Chenoweth, Clarke is not doing an imiatation, but more a homage. Really, she is giving the audience what it wants to see, but she is also putting her own spin on it. It is fun to watch her morph from self-centered, egomaniac, social butterfly with more than her share of stupidity and prejudice into a thoughtful, giving, sacrificing and forgiving Ozian. Clarke does amazing work in parceling out these changes slowly, but surely, so that each character/plot twist is not shocking but rather a revelation, and thus completely believable. She has a sweet voice, a reckless abandon and a definite love for what she is doing. And because it is obvious that she loves her job, the audience enjoys her just that much more.
Two sides to Elphaba: From Student to The Wicked Witch of the West
Elphaba is clearly the more sympathetic character, and is given the richest material. On the one hand, this affords any actress a certain comfort in know the audience is pulling for her, and even wanting her to become the wickedest witch there ever was. On the other, in lesser hands, the role could be a nightmare of unfulfilled expectation and disappointment. Happily, that is most definitely not the case with Mandy Gonzalez who sings the hell out of every number - I literally had goose bumps was she soared through "Defying Gravity", and had tears in my eyes as she poured out her heart in happiness during "The Wizard and I", and later as she poured out her love and appreciation for Glinda in "For Good." I particularly enjoyed her tough, urban girl take on Elphaba as she built up her defense wall against the students at Shiz, and delighted in the slow melting away (forgive the pun) of those defenses as she gains real confidence and actual friends. Of course that transformation makes her eventual turn to what the Ozians feel is wickedness all the more sad. Ms. Gonzalez knows how to hit each emotional chord without being obvious. And her chemistry with Ms. Clarke makes this current Wicked among the best I've seen.
Wand vs Broom: The Witches of Oz Showdown
Each time I see it, I appreciate Wicked more. And as it currently stands at the Gershwin, it more than earns its popularity and reputation as a crowd-pleaser and Broadway spectacle.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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