Every generation has its musical, and all lovers of musicals remember that first big show that knocked their socks off and whose songs they were singing months afterwards. Judging by the approving roar at the opening night of the national touring company’s Kennedy Center run, Wicked, the Stephen Schwartz/Winnie Holzman 2003 blockbuster musical, not only claims that magical spot but is already something of a cult classic. Who wants to resist the spell that this big (in every sense of the word) musical casts?
Production values abound and give you your money’s worth right from the getgo. An enormous dragon, whose wings span the proscenium, lights up with flashing red eyes at the top of the show, spreads its wings, and looks as if it just might take off into the audience. The 18 piece orchestra strikes up, and the first number nearly blows you out of your seats. From loud, the show mostly gets louder, and, with the light show accompanying several numbers, I thought I was at a rock concert.
For those few who have never heard of Wicked (and you would have had to live under a rock or had your house fall on you), it’s the back story for that Wicked Witch of the West and the other goody-goody witch Glinda, originally seen in “The Wizard of Oz.” The story how they met at school, how they came by their monikers, and what perceptions got mis-played to lock them forever in their dualistic inconography. Along the way, the musical, based on the novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire, answers (sort of) why witch Elphaba is that peculiar green color and how those ruby slippers came to be.
“You have to give people what they want,” the Wizard of Oz says, sharing the secret that gives him his power. This sounded like the personal credo coming directly from its creators. Composer Stephen Schwartz ( Pippin and Godspell among others), partnered by Winnie Holzman who wrote the book, must have dipped into their own sorcerer’s manual to get this recipe just right for the cultural landscape. Take Maguire’s book, add three parts Harry Potter, two parts “Legally Blonde”, and one part Lady Gaga. Poof! A musical phenomenon that continues to fill theatres around the country.
The witches, excuse me, girls, meet at a sorcerer’s school in the Land of Oz. Elphaba is picked on because, well, she’s different, and, like our friend Harry, she gets riled into using her extraordinary power. Also, like Harry, Elphaba has to overcome a very difficult childhood to come into her own. As this not so very wicked witch, Dee Roscioli is terrific. Having done the role on Broadway, as well as in Chicago and San Francisco, she may have lived in her green skin longer than in any regular flesh tone, and she does indeed embody this oh-so-smart, slightly awkward, but fiercely courageous and principled girl through her journey.
She makes a compelling case for how Elphaba had to build some armor as well as acquire some questionable skills on her way to becoming the woman and the legend. Roscioli must have vocal cords of steel to withstand the pounding this role takes, especially in the big numbers like “The Wizard and I” and the blazing end of Act I show stopper, “Defying Gravity.” But she also shows great lyrical ability as well as emotional depth in songs like “I’m Not That Girl.”
Amanda Jane Cooper makes Reese Witherspoon, the blonde archetype in “Legally Blonde”, seem downright dishwater blonde as she flips her hair and preens her golden tresses. Glinda in the original “Wizard of Oz” movie was always a little too dewey and gooey for my taste. But based on Maguire’s book, Schwartz, Holzman, and Co. have given her an update that makes Glinda’s kind of good downright fun.
Holzman has given her lines where she mangles and makes up words, and in playing the dumber-than-dumb dizzyhead, Cooper obliges by pulling out all the stops. Her voice in one moment sounds like the girl’s had a hit of helium then dives down into a growl. Absolutely priceless is her scene with Elphaba in their shared dorm room where Gah-linda (aka Glinda) bows to her shoe closet altar, bounces on the bed like a munchkin herself, then attempts to make a wand work, preparing like a pint-sized Arnold Schwarzenegger for a power lift. Her second act duet with sidekick and sometime friend Elphaba genuinely made me teary.
The other characters don’t get much of a chance to show their stuff, but Mark Jacoby does get to perform a song and dance from a kinder and gentler era in “A Sentimental Man.” After the glitz and sheer decibels of a lot of the show, I found his moment refreshing.
And who wouldn’t sign up for a class with Paul Slade Smith’s Doctor Dillamand? With limited time on stage, he made the terror of losing not only his professorship but his humanity truly heartfelt in every goatish “bah.”
When the pretty boy lover-interest entered by rickshaw, he caused such a stir, I thought that maybe it was Brad Pitt behind those dark shades. Initially, I wasn’t wild about the boy. As it turned out, Colin Hanlon, as Fiero, won me over just as he won “that girl” and our favorite witch.
Randy Danson as Madame Morrible slings zingers and struts the stage with awesomely wicked aplomb, her oversized bustle trailing behind looking like a great fallen derrière.
The costumes were a trip. I was frankly puzzled in the first scene where the Ozzian populace seemed strangely bundled in what looked like Cossack garb, with the even stranger addition on several of the men of asymmetrical skirts. Wasn’t Oz supposed to be the land of sunshine and poppy fields? But each scene became bolder and bolder in its realization and inventiveness. In “Dancing Through Life” the stage pictures got dizzying with the costumes seemingly derived from Escher prints. Then, when the stage went green, every man, woman and child of them in a different pastiche of green, one looking like Paddy Day parade gear, another a Diana Ross slinky Supreme-ness, and even what could only be described as a parti-colored sausage roll. Over the top it was, as though someone had got a peek into Lady Gaga’s closet. For sheer virtuosity, these costumes certainly deserved one of the three Tony Award’s this show garnered.
Eugene Lee’s set design astounded first nighters when it opened in New York in 2003. The set’s main elements included two great towers of clocks and gears suggesting the mechanical world of the Wizard, who sets things in motion with his gigantic toys that fool the people as he pretends to fulfill their dreams. I felt the set anchored the story more than the over-the-top rock concert light show and sound mix that all too often took over the stage, burying performances.
Join the rush to experience the secret of Oz, and yes, the secret is that it was all done with smoke and mirrors. But that’s the point, if I get Mr Schwartz’s point – underneath all the glitz of the “smoke and mirrors” that Broadway audiences have come to expect, there is an affecting story of two girls and how life changes them and at the same time creates the women they always were meant to be.
You might need earplugs, but you won’t want to miss it.
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire
Directed by Joe Mantello
Musical Staging by Wayne Cilento
Produced by Matt Platt, Universal Pictures, The Araca Group, Jan B. Platt and David Stone at the Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including one intermission