It all started when Gregory Maguire realized what many of us should have noticed when we first saw THE WIZARD OF OZ in childhood.
If you had green skin, wouldn’t you be at least a little anti-social?
Maguire didn’t leave it at that, though. He invented a whole new Oz that captivated millions in his 1995 best-selling neo-classic. Among them were composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Winnie Holzman.
Aren’t they – and Maguire – glad that they did? WICKED recently celebrated its 20th year on Broadway, a claim that only three other musicals can make. As the biggest hit of the 21st century, it’s made all other shows of the last two decades emerald green with envy. When Elphaba sings “Unlimited!” she just so happens to be talking about the show’s prospects.
Word-of-mouth makes clear that the Broadway production is in fine shape. That’s good – or, as we who grew up in Boston like to say, wicked good. But in what shape is the national tour that’s out now?
A trip to New Orleans was in order. How nice to see that the venerable Saenger Theatre, which Hurricane Katrina put 14 feet underwater 18 years ago, is now in glorious shape.
So is this tour. If it’s Coming Soon to a Theater Near You, be confident that you’ll see a production to which any drama professor at Shiz University or anywhere else would award an A-plus.
That’s impressive in an age where too many tours look as if they’re Bus-and-U-Haul. Not this one. If there’s been any scrimping on Eugene Lee’s sets or Susan Hilferty’s costumes, you’d have to look hard to see any differences from the super-ornate Broadway edition.
As for the show itself, there’ll always be room for a story where the ugly duckling gets the good looking swan. Such hits as FUNNY GIRL preceded WICKED and such hits as HAIRSPRAY followed it. These tales speak to us, for which of us has not felt inferior in certain situations? Sad to say, insecurity most often invades us when people are more attractive than we.
And for a while there, it does appear that glamour girl Galinda and handsome Fiyero are fated to be mated. The Shiz Yearbook staff would definitely choose them as the school’s cutest couple.
They do seem right for each other, albeit not for the greatest of reasons. In “Popular,” Schwartz’s perkiest earworm, Galinda makes quite clear what her values are. (Elphaba sure doesn’t value them, and not just out of jealousy.)
As for Fiyero, Holzman has him oxymoronically admit in one of her funniest lines, “I’m deeply shallow.”
Not quite. Give him credit for ultimately admiring Elphaba for shrugging off what people think as she keeps her staunch resolve to be herself.
However, at the moment, he isn’t quite enough for Elphaba. Her feelings are similar to what Joan of Arc sang in GOOD TIME CHARLEY when expressing her feelings for The Dauphin: “I am going to love the man you’re going to be.”
A subplot shows that some of Oz’s animals are endangered species in a different way; they endure a different kind of conversion therapy. As a result, WICKED seems more relevant today than it was 20 years ago. Here we have Doctor Dillamond, a wise teacher but literally a goat, forcibly removed from a class simply due to intolerance by people who are threatened by intelligence. Many professors in universities today are experiencing a similar fate.
Olivia Valli’s Elphaba not only defies gravity vocally, but she may also defy your expectations no matter how high they were. She initially has the naiveté of an outcast who hasn’t had much life experience when she confidently says to Doctor Dillamond “That’s why we have a wizard.”
Her belief in authority will change, starting with her becoming staunchly resolute when taking up the cause of animal rights (which makes sense; all her life, she’s been an underdog, too).
When Galinda gives her a witch’s hat in hopes that it will make her look stupid, Valli slams it on her head in an act of defiance. She stares down the rest of the Shizzians who give her a does-anyone-still-wear-a-hat stare.
As Galinda, Celia Hottenstein shows she’s up to the superb soprano demands from the first moment that she sings. After she displays her benign superficiality in “Popular,” we like her less when she sheds crocodile tears over the goat who’s forcibly removed. This happens not many minutes after she sneeringly referred to him as “an old goat.”
However, in Act Two, Hottenstein step by step matures nicely as the newly renamed Glinda becomes First Lady of Oz. When she asks Fiyero if he’s happy about their relationship – and he answers with the evasive “You know I’m always happy” – she accepts her defeat with grace.
Elphaba’s sister Nessarose – the favored child and “good daughter” –
proves once again that power corrupts, and Tara Kostmayer does that, as the expression goes, with a vengeance. As her victim Boq, Kyle McArthur portrays a lovesick minor who thinks he’s found a way to have his unrequited love object see his value. McArthur shows a character who’s doing the best he can, even as happiness eludes him. (After all, he does stay with Nessarose until she can literally stand on her own two feet.)
Kathy Fitzgerald makes Madame Morrible imperious but ultimately caring. She has a fine delivery when she tells Elphaba, “Never apologize for talent.” As the Wizard, Timothy Shew makes good on the adjective that the character has awarded himself as well as his second act song: “Wonderful.” And when Boise Holmes’ Doctor Dillamond is given the chance to talk, he does so eloquently.
The real find, though, is the charismatic Christian Thompson as Fiyero. Early in the show, each time he’s vainglorious, the emphasis is on the last three syllables. He also amuses in how he exclaims “Perfect timing!” when he learns that he’s so late for class that he missed the whole session. What’s more important, though, is the sincerity he shows as he calibrates the character’s growth.
Getting to hear Stephen Schwartz’s score is once again an unmitigated pleasure. But here’s a thought: Was Schwartz making a comment in having Elphaba use correct grammar (“The Wizard and I”) and Galinda not? (“Not as popular as me.”)
The Saenger is a supersized theater. After Row Z in the orchestra comes eight more rows that end with HH. So many seats were, as you may have anticipated, filled with tween and teen girls. WICKED sports the line “I want to remember this moment forever,” and that may aptly describe the feeling that so many young first-time theatergoers will have.
The Wizard says, “You have to give people what they want.” Schwartz and Holzman filled that want more than two decades ago, and this company is not at all found wanting. You’ll want to see this excellent tour when it reaches your town.