Review: “Wicked” Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Winnie Holzman based on the novel by Gregory Maguire. Musical Staging by Wayne Cilento. Directed by Joe Mantello. With Dee Roscioli, Patti Murin, Justin Brill, Clifton Davis, Clifton Hall, Demaree Hill, Tom McGowan and Kim Zimmer. Now through November 17, 2012 at The Paramount.
Frankly, isn’t the beloved Broadway musical “Wicked”, now playing a long run at The Paramount, practically review proof? It’s been around for almost a decade and made zillions of dollars and has zillions of loyal fans, many of them LGBTQ. Die-hard “Wicked” fans are going to come out in droves regardless of what I have to say… Still, I’m sure The Paramount would like to lure in MORE first timers to fill all these seats for all those shows so I guess it’s still possible to have an opinion about “Wicked” and to contribute to any discussion about the show regardless how “Popular” it is. There’s still money to be had for those desperate to “Defy Gravity”.
I’m done with the cuteness. I promise.
“Wicked” is a modestly entertaining show with spectacular design elements and a first class attention to detail. For the 12 people on the planet not aware, “Wicked” is the umpteenth retelling of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” only this time it’s told from the point of the view of the two Oz witches, one “good” and one “wicked”. Based rather loosely on gay author Gregory Maguire’s best-selling novel, “Wicked” focuses primarily on the life of the Wicked Witch of the West, here named Elphaba, and her relationship with the Good Witch Glinda, in a plot that begins long before the familiar tale of Dorothy and Toto, but eventually coincides with that more familiar story. The musical largely follows the first section of Maguire’s novel, though it leaves out all of Elphaba’s childhood and complicated family life in Munchkinland, but picks the story up as Elphaba and her wheelchair bound sister Nessarose begin college life at Shiz University where they encounter a snotty but popular co-ed named Galinda, and their mysterious new headmistress, Madame Morrible. Circumstances force Elphaba and Galinda into being roommates, and the studious, serious and persecuted green girl and the vacuously blonde pretty girl have nothing in common but a series of events force the two to bond…until the new stud in school, Fiyero starts to come between them. Elphaba’s obvious talent for magic soon gets her the attention of the mysterious Wizard of Oz and she travels to the Emerald City to plead on behalf of Oz’s talking animals who are being mysteriously persecuted. The first act of ”Wicked” ends with the beloved power ballad from the musical, “Defying Gravity” and Elphaba emerging as The Wicked Witch of the West”.
The first act of “Wicked” is largely an enjoyable affair. The story line is quickly established with just enough back story to keep the audience up to date. And, it’s fun to see these familiar characters in a different situation, like watching an episode of “Muppet Babies”. To be honest, the music of “Wicked” isn’t particularly strong, except for the two hit songs, “Popular” sung by Galinda and the act ending “Gravity” so things can get a little draggy during the production numbers but Joe Mantello’s original staging keeps the show moving along at a brisk pace. Even if the songs are a bit “meh”, there’s always a gorgeous costume or set change or dazzling light show to dazzle the eye. “Wicked” is a guilty pleasure, like a bag full of Halloween candy…not at all good for you, but it’s a tasty treat, at least at the beginning of the bag.
The second act is less enjoyable as the musical veers drastically away from Gregory Maguire’s original novel. The time frame of the story doesn’t make much sense and a number of “cute” character transformations are made to set up the AWFUL ending of the show. Maguire’s novel was very dark as it explored the social, religious and political landscape of Oz and it dealt graphically with both violent and sexual matters. The creators of “Wicked” wanted to make sure this is a family show, so the thornier, darker side has been largely replaced with contrivance and implausibility, and as a result, the show suffers despite the charms of the performers. It also doesn’t help that the second act contains no music of any interest or charm. It’s a clunky path to the ludicrous “Happily Ever After” ending contrived for this show.
As stated, the strong performances, in particular the two actresses playing the leading roles of Elphaba and Galinda are the chief merits of this production. Dee Roscioli as Elphaba and Patti Murin as Galinda/Glinda are strong seasoned performers who both give impassioned performances. Miss Murin was an audience favorite, as the actress playing Glinda always is, largely due to the fact that the creators of “Wicked” tailored the role to its original starring actress, Kristin Chenowith and her unique comedic charms are now preserved in the many funny lines given to the character. Soap opera diva Kim Zimmer is currently playing the supporting role of Madame Morrible, and the actress is fine in the role but not quite as comedic as some of the very funny ladies who’ve preceded her in the part. Another TV face, Clifton Davis is nearly unrecognizable as the Goat Professor Doctor Dillamond, but he does fine work in a small but important role.
Less successful are the actors playing the Wizard and Nessarose. “Frasier” actor Tom McGowan is too low-key for the hammy charms of this rather malevolent Wizard and Demaree Hill was frankly a bit dull and flat in what isn’t really a well-written or very interesting role as the crippled sister Nessarose. Clifton Hall made for a beefy and appealing hero as the love interest Fiyero, but he’s also hampered by the fact his role has been oddly contrived from the far more interesting character in the Maguire novel.
Really, my strongest praise is for the design team, all from the original production, including Susan Hilferty’s terrific Tony Award winning costumes, Eugene Lee’s also Tony Award winning sets and Kenneth Posner’s lighting. The eye candy of “Wicked” is probably its chief asset.
“Wicked” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2004 winning only 3 awards for the aforementioned costumes and sets, and a Best Actress win for Idina Menzel as Elphaba and losing the much sought after awards for Best Musical, Book and Score. The show that did win those awards that year, “Avenue Q” is a far better show than “Wicked” and richly deserved those wins. “Wicked” is pleasurable fun, if you like gaudy, shiny things without much depth, so it can be recommended under those caveats. But, I have to admit that I’m looking forward to Balagan’s upcoming production of “Avenue Q” next month and if I had to choose between seeing “Wicked” again or that unproven production, I’d go with the better written and constructed choice. “It Sucks To Be Me” and “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” are brilliant songs; “Popular” and “Defying Gravity” are a bit shallow in comparison…