Reviewed by Kelly Kleiman
Wicked is that rarest of commodities, a contemporary musical for adults that's fun. For all his virtues, Stephen Sondheim has left gloom as his legacy to American musical theater, and it's an emotion that in less capable hands than his can quickly become tiresome. And, let's face it: almost everyone's hands are less capable than his.
But maybe not Stephen Schwartz's. Here he's set himself a task from which most writers would shrink, and for good reason. Who dares to take iconic characters etched in definitive movie portrayals and reinvent them? The audience should refuse to go along: we know we love Glinda and hate the Wicked Witch, so what else is there to say? But Schwartz and book writer Winnie Holzman bring us into their vision from the very first scene, giving us an Oz that differs from the movie or the original book but charms us nonetheless. All resistance is futile long before they show how monkeys came to fly.
A quick primer: Wicked posits that the Wicked Witch (then named Elphaba) and Glinda were roommates, rivals and sometime friends at a Oz boarding school where the secrets of magic are imparted by a faculty including talking sheep. Thus, it's less an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz than it is Harry Potter meets Carrie: a tale of loyalty and betrayal among the differently abled. Unsurprisingly, Elphaba and Glinda fall for the same man, the stunningly shallow Fiyero, and unsurprisingly Fiyero finds himself torn between Glinda's obvious charms and Elphaba's subtle coloration. Then Holzman and Schwartz insert the twist which, though it powers the rest of the show, is the weakest part of the book: that there's a mysterious plot to deprive animals of their voices, which causes Elphaba to become an outlaw on their behalf. Through this conflict, Wicked's characters are transformed into those of The Wizard of Oz. It's a lovely conceit, but too complicated to sustain. During the second act, the show seems to be searching for a way to end.
But it really hardly matters, because the superb score so dominates the evening. From the opening "No One Mourns the Wicked," which combines tunefulness with evocation of the "O-ee-o" chant of the Wicked Witch's castle guards, we're in the hands of a master craftsman, who knows how to use a song not only to delineate character but to move plot forward. A pair of beautiful ballads --"I'm Not That Girl," "For Good" -- rest on solid underpinnings of big production numbers ("Dancing Through Life," "Thank Goodness") and enough specialty turns to gladden the heart of Flo Ziegfeld, including Glinda's self-love letter "Popular," and the Wizard's hymn to insincerity "A Sentimental Man." Schwartz weaves the score together beautifully, so that the evening provides a nearly complete education in musical comedy construction.
The production, with Eugene Lee's spectacular set and costumes by Susan Hilferty that are fabulous in every sense of the word, echoes the movie's wonderful weirdness and use of contrasting color and black-and-white without merely copying. The result glitters like the Emerald City, particularly on the stage of the Oriental Theatre, a restored movie palace from the Roaring Twenties. Set against the hall's eruption of gilt statuary, faux-Arab mosaics and ceiling murals, the musical's figurehead (an enlarged version of the Wizard's mask) looks right at home on the proscenium arch; perhaps the producers will leave it behind as a permanent crown to the stage. The show's only weakness is Wayne Cilento's musical staging (a/k/a "choreography"), which looks like a parody of show dancing but not quite enough of one to be funny.
Wicked opened in Chicago with a touring cast but over the summer most of those out-of-towners have gone where the goblins go, replaced by a cadre of local actors who will run the show until it runs out of steam, which may be sometime in the next decade. The company is exceptional; it's hard to imagine the original cast could have been better. Ana Gasteyer, a graduate of Northwestern who cut her dramatic teeth on Mary Zimmerman's music -- and dance --filled dramas, is superb as Elphaba, giving humor and pathos and power to a character we've been primed to loathe. Her voice has a wonderful tremelo and she engages with everyone else on the stage, and with the audience, with utter directness and honesty. She gets excellent support from Kate Reinders (one of the few New Yorkers remaining) as Glinda, though Reinders' performance includes so many of Kristin Chenowith's mannerisms that it's impossible not to wonder whether she's doing an imitation instead of making the character her own. As witchcraft teacher Madame Morrible (who, pace Miss Malaprop, says "expectorating" when she means "expecting" and the like), Steppenwolf veteran Rondi Reed is suitably over the top, though it's disquieting how much she looks like a man in drag. Kristoffer Cusick (another New York transplant) is superb as Fiyero at his most trivial; the sooner he takes the title role in Bye Bye Birdie, the better. He's somewhat less persuasive as Elphaba's heroic lover, and both of them oversell their duet "As Long As You're Mine." There's just so far you can go singing a love song with or to green skin before it starts to seem, well, weird; if they pushed it less, it would affect the audience more. The weak link in the cast is Gene Weygandt as the Wizard. He hasn't yet decided whether to play it as the beginning of The Music Man, when Harold Hill is pure con man, or as the end, when he's redeemed. To be fair, the book puts him on that cusp, but because Wicked isn't about the Wizard's journey, the actor needs to choose one and stick to it. As it is, when Weygandt breaks into a little dance step during curtain call, it's a shock, like seeing someone playing Hamlet's Claudius take a bow with a cartoon affixed to his face.
But these are quibbles. Wicked may demonstrate that it isn't easy being green, but Schwartz, Holzman, Mantello and company sure make it look easy, and the pleasure is ours.