The Wicked Witch of the West was more than just green skin and cackle. Similarly, there’s more to Glinda the Good Witch than a simpering smile and a twinkly wand.
The backstories of these two iconic spell-casters from the Land of Oz (pre-Dorothy) forms the crux of the blinged out and bountiful of heart musical Wicked, which returns to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre for a month-long run.
Audience members wearing pointy-hat fascinators and other witchy accoutrements attest to the cult-like phenomenon that is Wicked, which opened on Broadway in 2003 and has been packing the Gershwin and theaters around the world ever since. Most people in our section had seen the show at least five times and were as astonished at my companion’s admitting it was her maiden voyage as if she had said she had heard that new-fangled indoor plumbing was all the rage.
Really, you think to yourself, what’s the ruckus all about? Are people these days so easily amused they’ll keep seeing a glitzy musical over and over as if it were reruns of Jersey Shore?
Swallow your cynicism, theatergoers. In the interest of disclosure I had to choke back a considerable amount of vitriol, having been decidedly underwhelmed when seeing the show early in its original Broadway run. As I watched swarms of tweens and teenage girls swooning over the musical and beating a path to the souvenir stands, I lamented the diminishing of the estrogen and other hormones apparently necessary to take Wicked deep into your heart.
Flash forward nine years later. I found myself captivated by Wicked and not only warmed to the themes of authentic female friendship and really being careful what you wish for and why, but I also fell like a two-dollar floozy for the over-the-top schmaltz that is composer Stephen Schwartz and the eye-popping special effects and production values.
Granted, what was once a plot-heavy and confusing second act has been cleaned up and streamlined for the touring version. This and some other tweaks—as well as a constellation-worthy performance by Christine Dwyer as Elphaba (the “evil” witch)—renders Wicked a highly enjoyable piece of musical theatre.
Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, Wicked describes the coming of age of two unlikely friends. Thrown together at the same college of sorcery, Glinda (Jeanna De Waal, sweet and sparkling with just the right amount of entitled attitude) is the BWOC—big witch on campus—blonde, bouncy and gung-ho as a head cheerleader. All she needs is her prince and he arrives right on cue, the handsome layabout Fiyero (Billy Harrigan Tighe, who turns out, after a shaky start, to be eye candy with substance).
Her roommate is Elphaba, green-skinned and fiery as a flame, smart and impassioned too. Hated since birth for her skin color (prejudice and bullying of all types—witches, animals and Munchkins– is a major motif in the musical), Elphaba has a boulder-size chip on her shoulder, yet still tries to do the moral thing, especially in her devotion to her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Catherine Charlebois). Nessarose, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the East, is played by Miss Charlesbois as a self-possessed soul seized by banked anger, which she takes out on the poor Munchkin Boq (a nuanced Michael Wartella), who is kind to the girl to gain points with Glinda.
Elphaba and Glinda go together like princess and frog, a reality they lament in the catchy ditty to dissonance, “What Is This Feeling?” However, Elphaba’s fearsome talent and Glinda’s ambition give them common ground and they begin to appreciate each other’s attributes, as expressed in the quirkily perky song “Popular.”
Their strong bond is sorely tested as Elphaba’s powers grow and she is pulled toward a path of defiance and a dangerous crusade to save the animals from bigotry and genocide. Her decision to embrace her dark forces is gorgeously embodied in the first-act’s rousing closer “Defying Gravity,” where Elphaba literally expands before our eyes into a towering presence, a development enforced by the song’s endless crescendos and supernaturally high notes.
Glinda also has an agenda—to be loved by the public. Yet celebrity has its cost, as her desire to be adored by the masses leads her to situations where her image of goodness is sullied by nefarious behind-the-scenes finagling.
Closes November 4, 2012
France-Merrick Performing Arts Center- Hippodrome
12 North Eutaw Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $125
Tuesdays thru Sundays
In the second act, both witches learn hard lessons about their life choices, seen in the songs “No Good Deed” and “For Good.” Glinda finds that creating a fairytale life is just that, and there are no happy endings—just wiser ones. Elphaba discovers that through embracing of your badness for good causes you can get the life (and love) you once believed you did not deserve.
The latter part of the musical also uses elements from the Wizard of Oz to dis Dorothy and Toto, as well as cleverly offer up how the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion came to be.
The pop-heavy score and lite lyrics will never give Stephen Sondheim angina, but Mr. Schwartz certainly knows how to produce one soaring showstopper after another to the point where you almost are on Broadway belter overload. Your senses are further indulged in the company’s exemplary vocal ensemble work and the high-wattage production values. Eugene Lee’s industrial age set is a multi-layered wonderland of clock parts and ornate girders and Susan Hilferty’s costumes are steampunk meets Edwardian flair.
While visually and vocally opulent, the message of Wicked is to never take anything at face value. The wicked or different are capable of amazing things. Pretty is how you look, not who you are.
Wicked, Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman. Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire. This is a Broadway Across America touring production.