I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The first time I saw Wicked, it was also at the Orpheum the last time the tour came through town, probably 2016 or 2017. I liked it, I didn’t love it. This time though, I kinda loved it! I don’t know if it’s a show where expectations are just so high that it can’t help but disappoint the first time or what. It’s show stopping moment (pictured above), which is also the shows most familiar song, “Defying Gravity,” is spectacular, and I think first timers go in expecting that level of wonderment throughout. Of course the reality would be that you wouldn’t have a story to follow if every scene was some passionate crescendo featuring wonder inducing theatrics. Freed of those expectations I followed the character arcs more closely, appreciated the allegorical nature of the story more, and was still wowed by the production design and effects work.
Wicked is based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman. It tells the backstory of The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. From this perspective The Wizard of Oz is merely propaganda designed to manipulate the population in order for the Wizard to maintain power over the people. Remember, History is written by the victors, which is the crux upon which the novel and the musical are based. We learn the details of Elphaba’s conception and birth, that she is shunned because of her green skin. From there we jump to her and her sister Nessarose going off to Shiz university. Here Elphaba meets Galinda, later to be just Glinda. At first they feel a mutual loathing, but an act of mistook kindness creates a bond between the two. They both pine for Fiyero the Winkie Prince bad boy who isn’t as shallow as he wants everyone to think. Elphaba has a gift of magic which attracts the attention of the headmistress, Madame Morrible, who begins to teach Elphaba how to use her gift and at Elphaba’s insistence Glinda as well. When the Wizard sends word for Elphaba to come see him Glinda goes with and they discover the truth behind the curtain. One of the things The Wizard is doing is restricting the rights of animals, who in this world can speak and even teach at the university level. The novel was published in the mid 1990’s and the musical opened on broadway in 2003, nearly 20 years ago. When they created the show I’m sure their intention was to present an allegory that reminded us of the past. What’s uncanny is the parallels that existed 20 years ago have only become more pronounced. A show that was likely supposed to remind us and caution us against the past, now seems to be speaking directly to the world of the last six years. There’s a scene in the second act that seems to be referencing Eva Peron’s “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from Evita, which again is referencing a fascist regime.
The stage is so packed with electric sets and elaborate costumes that the cast almost gets lost in the mix. Populated by extremely solid performers including two well cast leads in Jennafer Newberry as Glinda and Lissa Deguzman as Elphaba. Both are wonderful in their roles, everyone is, but the one thing missing is someone who rises above their role. This is a cast devoid of that one voice that knocks your socks off, thankfully it’s also devoid of anyone who can’t quite pull off the singing. Newberry has the right over the top cheerfulness in her voice and really shines on a song like “Popular”. Deguzman nails Defying Gravity and given what’s going on visually during that song you have to or you’ll get swallowed up by the rest of the show. Vocally again everyone’s solid, acting wise I also enjoyed Jordan Litz as Fiyero, John Bolton as the wizard of Oz, and Lisa Howard as Madame Morrible.
The real star of the show though are the set design, special effects, Lighting, and costumes. All of which are amazing, but they are utilized in the service of the story for the most part, which is really the way it should be. Scenic Designer Eugene Lee’s sets are detailed and dazzling. Kenneth Posner the Lighting Designer creates just the right look in every scene, truly enhancing the sets. Projection Designer Elaine J. McCarthy and Special Effects creator Chic Silber work wonderfully together and with the other departments to pull off what is honestly one of the most innovative and evocative shows I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Finally Tom Watson on wigs and hair and Susan Hilferty as costume designer complete the picture with so many different looks and styles sometimes borrowing motifs from the past, sometimes something that feels wholly original.
Wicked may seem like the perfect show to take kids to but it isn’t really. I’d say teenager and above. It’s set in the land of Oz, there are witches and wizards and tin men and flying monkeys, but it’s also a deeply political show that deals with issues that draw parallels to many of today’s issues from the restrictions of rights to fake news. But for anyone at all interested in the political side of things it is a dazzler of a show, with great music, draw dropping special effects and every aspect of the production layers to create some truly magnificent environments. Wicked runs through August 28th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/broadway/
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