Wicked is one of the most loved musicals in history, regularly selling out Broadway’s largest theatre since 2003 and spawning several national tours, the most recent now in an outstanding production at The Kennedy Center.
Wicked is an alternative history of The Wizard of Oz universe, focusing primarily on the backstory of Glinda, the Good Witch and Elphaba, who becomes known as the Wicked Witch of the West.
For those of you new to the show, I’ve outlined the plot at the end of this review.
Amanda Jane Cooper starred in the first national tour and makes a welcome return as Glinda. She has an enchanting stage presence and her comedic skills keep the audience in the palm of her hand. Cooper provokes laughts with every little facial expression, malapropism, squeal, and bouncing movement. And her sweet and pure soprano voice is a joy to hear.
Jessica Vosk plays the lead role of Elphaba, originated in 2003 by Idina Menzel, as more of a cranky and awkward girl at the start. It makes her odd couple paring with Glinda funnier, although she is not fiercely bitter enough to foreshadow her evolution to the so-called Wicked Witch later in the show.
When it comes to singing, however, what pipes Vosk has! She is capable of the powerhouse vocals that earn great audience applause after “Defying Gravity” and “No Good Deed.” She also is capable of hitting shiny higher notes, which helps her voice blend beautifully with Cooper in the sentimental summation of their friendship (the lovely “For Good”).
Many other cast members give standout performances that convey more than the thin characterizations in Winnie Holzman’s book. Isabel Keating gives Madame Morrible a cruel, comic charm. Kristen Martin has a sweet intensity as Nessarose, especially in her yearning for the romantically-inept Boq (Andy Mientus).
Perhaps the strongest supporting performance comes from Jeremy Woodard as Fiyero. He makes his character’s moral struggle painfully apparent and has excellent chemistry with Vosk’s Elphaba.
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Special recognition should also go to a very energetic ensemble. Whether acting as students in “Dear Old Shiz,” citizens of the Emerald City in “One Short Day,” or moving about as winged monkeys, they execute the choreography and group movements with great verve and powerful precision.
The travelling set is almost as impressive as the one you can still see in the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are still as delightful, and best of all, Stephen Schwartz’s Grammy-winning songs are still as beautiful when performed by the 16-piece orchestra.
Many may be tempted to draw political parallels from the story of Wicked and are free to do so. The show works best, however, as the touching personal story of two young women balancing friendship, romance, and difficult moral choices.
Wicked. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Winnie Holzman. Directed by Joe Mantello. Featuring Jessica Vosk, Amanda Jane Cooper, Chad Jennings, Kristen Martin, Andy Mientus, Jeremy Woodard, Isabel Keating, and Fred Applegate. Musical Staging: Wayne Cilento. Settings: Eugene Lee. Costumes: Susan Hilferty. Lighting: Kenneth Posner. Sound: Tony Meola. Presented by The Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.
And now, for those unfamiliar with Wicked‘s musical story:
Glinda and Elphaba originally met in school (“Dear Old Shiz”), run by Madame Morrible.
Elphaba is assigned to watch over her wheel-chair bound, father-favored sister Nessarose. She longs for a new life and the love of a surrogate father figure (“The Wizard and I”).
Elphaba unexpectedly winds up paired as roommate to Glinda and the two take an instant dislike to each other (“What Is This Feeling?”). Glinda is the perky, popular blonde girl while Elphaba, with her her emerald green-colored skin, is dark and socially backward.
The arc of Elphaba and Glinda’s growing friendship forms the strongest plotline in the story. Glinda’s showcase song is “Popular,” in which she promises to help Elphaba with her appearance and social skills.
Other plots in the well-stuffed musical include a love triangle between the two girls and bad boy slacker Fiyero, whose philosophy involves carefree “Dancing Through Life.” Initially he is drawn to Glinda, leaving Elphaba to sing the lonely lament “I’m Not That Girl. ”
There is also a political plot that will drive changes in the relationships. Elphaba is initially drawn to the kindly-seeming Wizard, who claims to be “A Sentimental Man.” She soon sees that he has led the citizens of Oz in an unjust struggle against a common enemy in order to gain united support. Elphaba splits with the Wizard and takes a revolutionary turn in Wicked’s most famous song, the thrilling first act finale “Defying Gravity.”