When the musical “Wicked” first opened on Broadway, it received some decidedly mixed reaction, not only from a number of New York critics but from some of the Main Stem cognoscenti as well, who complained about a lackluster score too reliant on belted-out ballads and a production that pandered to the audience’s need for spectacle. Those same people are no doubt astonished that the musical which purports to reveal the events in the magical kingdom of Oz immediately prior to Dorothy’s arrival continues to sell out eight years later and has several companies touring nationally and internationally, one of which is playing through September 11 at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.
Seeing “Wicked” again in Hartford, it’s easy to see why this musical has become so, well, to use the title of one of most buoyant songs in its score, “popular.” It’s a really good show, period.
Stephen Schwartz’s score is just as fresh and exciting as it was the first time hearing it on a New York stage. As played by six musicians who tour with the show, supplemented by nine local musicians, the score sounds as strong and full as it did on Broadway. One is also reminded that Schwartz can be quite clever with his lyrics, with elaborate rhymes within rhymes, while also remaining true to each of the characters’ personalities and styles of speech, as when a goat warns that “something ba-a-a-a-a-d is happening in Oz.”
Winnie Holzman’s book, based on “Wicked” by western Massachusetts author Gregory Maguire, is a remarkable distillation of the complex novel. In an era where the books of musicals are getting simpler and simpler and frequently devoid of extended action, Holzman’s book contains enough plot and characters for three Broadway shows. The action, however, is never difficult to follow and Holzman has created distinctive characters with multiple shadings, making for an absorbing evening. She has also ably adjusted certain plot points in order to conform with the requirements of the Broadway musical, with the end result being significantly lighter in tone than the Maguire original.
Tony-award winning Director Joe Mantello has repeated his Broadway assignment for this tour, assuring that the momentum never lingers and allowing excitement to build. He fortunately has two great, strong willed characters around which to focus the production, Galinda, who will eventually become Glinda the Good, and Elphaba, the green-skinned young woman who will grow up to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West. At the Bushnell’s official opening night, understudy Megan Campanile played a delightfully self-absorbed Galinda, while Dee Roscioli, who has played the role more frequently than any other actress, was the quietly seething, searching Elphaba.
The plot follows the young witches arrival at Shiz University, the training ground for Oz’s upper classes, where the frequently belittled and mocked Elphaba accidentally ends up roommates with the pretty but callow Galinda. Elphaba, the eldest daughter of the Ruler of the Munchkins, has been sent by her parents to primarily assist her disabled younger sister, Nessarose, in maneuvering around the university. Although Galinda and Elphaba’s first encounters yield nothing but loathing (in the witty song “What Is This Feeling?”), they become firmer friends once Galinda recognizes the deliberately-distant Elphaba’s capacity for empathy and caring.
They eventually uncover a deadly conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of Oz authority, which forces the impassioned Elphaba to take a stand on behalf of the oppressed of the country, leading to her gaining a reputation–thanks to government propaganda–as the Wicked Witch of the West. This is summed up in one of the great first act curtains in recent musical history as Elphaba gains the power to fly and declares her objections to Oz’s status quo in the grandly defiant “Defying Gravity.”
Roscioli was in fine voice as Elphaba, delivering her ballads with the right mix of anger and righteousness, not only in her first act closer but in the equally commanding “No Good Deed.” She exhibits a softer side as well in her early expression of optimism in “The Wizard and I” and her farewell duet, “For Good,” with Galinda, who by the end of the show has shortened her name to the more PR-appropriate Glinda. Campanile plays cloyingly sweet quite exceptionally in her performance as Galinda, with a lilting, slightly squeaky voice that communicates the blond witch’s delight in her beauty and her self-assurance in knowing that she is meant for great things.
Of course, there’s also a handsome Ozian prince, Fiyero, to complicate the relationship between the two witches-in-training. As played by Colin Hanlon, Fiyero is both dashing and a dilletante, expressing his philosophy in the song “Dancing Through Life.” He however is not quite as dissolute as one may think, as he is genuinely impressed by Elphaba’s commitment to the distressed animals of Oz.
Randy Danson cuts quite the figure as the indomitable Madame Morrible, the shizmistress of the university, who is genuinely impressed by Elphaba’s nascent supernatural abilities, but who desires to train and control them for less-than-honorable purposes. Mark Jacoby is funny and, at the same time, distressingly disingenuous as the Wizard, who sings and dances that he is simply “A Sentimental Man” while trying to disguise his more sinister mechinations. Stefanie Brown demonstrates that she can be initially docile then cruelly manipulative as Nessarose while Justin Brill makes for a besotted Munchkin, Boq, whose obsession for Glinda fuels his willingness to hunt down Elphaba.
Eugene Lee’s elaborate set, dominated by a large clock and its visible workings stretched across the back wall of the stage, accommodates such locations as the university, an Oz nightclub, the streets of the Emerald City and Elphaba’s castle. There’s even Lee’s original take on the larger-than-life “presence” of the wizard in his throne room designed to terrify the petitioning citizens of the country. Lee recreates his Broadway set in nearly every respect, although it seems that some of the moving pieces that glide to center stage have been adjusted slightly for the tour.
Susan Hilferty’s costumes are an amazing array of brightly-colored storybook dresses, mixed with period style clothing from the late 19th century, about the time that L. Frank Baum published his first book about the fantasy world of Oz. She has created some dazzling green dresses, skirts and suits complete with elaborate headwear for the citizens of the Emerald City, as well as some costumes, with masks and wings, for the notorious flying monkeys. Hilferty imbues her work with subtle humor as well, as when she has outfitted the dancers in black and pin-striped dresses, pants and skirts, she just happens to clothe one of the men in a skirt, something that mixes so effortlessly into the dancing that no one probably noticed unless one happened to focus on that one dancer.
Together with Kenneth Posner’s elaborate lighting design, the sets and costumes are integral with the score, book and direction in creating this fantasy world. I doubt if “Wicked” could have succeeded so well if any of these pieces had not been so in sync with the others. Wayne Cilento’s musical staging allows the dancing to flow naturally in and out of the action, becoming more a natural response to a situation or an exuberant emotion rather than an obvious halt in the plot or in a song to stage a dance. Of course, this being Oz, the movements he creates are frequently unexpected and always clever as when Elphaba learns to dance.
I especially liked the little ways in which Holzman worked the mythology of Oz into her book for the show. Aside from sly references to classic lines like “there’s no place like home,” we’re pleasantly amused to see how the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion are ultimately incorporated into the plot. And Mantello has staged the climactic scene of “Wicked” in a creative way that honors and maintains the integrity of the corresponding scene in the 1939 motion picture.
While there were quite a few young girls in the audience at “Wicked,” the show works for anyone looking for a musical that harkens back to the large scale Broadway musicals of the 50’s but does so in thoroughly modern and sophisticated ways. Its story at its most basic level is a reminder that it’s not always easy to spot the truly wicked in the world, especially when they are backed up by the status quo, and are able to instead slap that label on those who courageously oppose their oppression.
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