After a few years living in the New York City area I realized that unless some friends came to visit me from out of town, I rarely took advantage of the wonderful theater options available to me. Earlier this year I began to try to remedy that by going to see Kinky Boots, which was pleasant but not the most memorable musical I have seen. So I have made a conscious attempt to make up for some of my lacks and have gone to see a couple of Broadway shows, one of them was Wicked, the hugely successful musical adaptation of the Gregory Maguire novel of the same name, which retells the Frank L. Baum story of the Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba. It’s a coincidence that I had tickets to the musical and then watched, and reviewed, the live television musical The Wiz a couple of days before my theater experience. Adding a crazy twist, I ran into the actress who played Dorothy a mere half hour before I was due at the Gershwin Theatre. All in all, it was an overdose of Oz for me over the course of three short days.
I was looking forward to the musical as I had heard a lot of good things about it, yet didn’t know what to really expect. While I knew, obviously, the story to the Baum and movie version, I was mostly in the dark as far as the musical’s story was concerned. Even the songs were unknown to me except for “Defying Gravity”, which I had seen Idina Menzel perform at the Tony Awards a few years ago, where she won the award for best actress. Obviously, given the nature of Broadway, the cast is constantly changing. Long gone are Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, who originated the leads of Elphaba and Glinda respectively. The actors currently in the parts were unknown to me, the only cast member I knew was Robin De Jesus, who plays a munchkin named Boq, whom I had seen years ago in a small movie called Camp about kids at a musical theater summer camp. But a musical like Wicked doesn’t really rely on star power, the story and the numbers are literally center stage, and as long as the audience is invested everything else ceases to matter.
The play begins as an origin story of sorts, but the plot eventually catches up to the story we all know and love, however Dorothy is never actually seen, thus the attention remains throughout on Elphaba, Glida, their relationship and their perspectives on what happened. The very beginning is the immediate reaction to the green witch’s death, with the people of Oz rejoicing and Glinda appearing in her bubble to the merry joy of all the citizens. Someone asks the good witch about her connection to the wicked one and Glinda acknowledges that the two used to know each other, and that in fact they had gone to school together. We are then treated to a flashback to the school days at Shiz. Elphaba, her wheelchair bound sister Nessarose, Glinda, and Boq were all classmates overseen by the headmistress Madame Morrible. Elphaba, who had been born with green skin, is immediately rejected for ghastly appearance and only finds comfort when interacting with her teacher Doctor Dillamond, a talking goat who warns of impending and disconcerting changes occurring throughout the land of Oz. An attractive and very cocky new student arrives, Fiyero, who immediately becomes a source of contention between frenemies Elphaba and Glinda.
There are two standouts music-wise during the production: the aforementioned “Defying Gravity” which ends the first act, and the song “Popular” which is fun and full of pep. “Gravity” is one of those perfect moments in musical theater in which the production is full of energy, the action and emotion are at their most intense, and the song is so soaring and moving that one finds themselves completely transported. The vocal acrobatics are so demanding that they are nothing but amazing, and all while the actress is literally flying. “Popular”, on the other hand, is the fun moment of levity, the opportunity to enjoy oneself and laugh along with the cast. It doesn’t hurt that the actress playing Glinda was such a goofball and had some of the best comedic timing I have seen in a musical. When I got home I looked on YouTube to see how Chenoweth performed the same song and found that I actually preferred the stage performance I had seen, in spite of the fact that Chenoweth is an amazing actress. The stage Glinda’s delivery and feel for the part just tickled me a little bit more.
There are a few moments that drag a little over the course of the two hour show, which happens a bit in musicals when exposition is important but is done through song, and I was never completely impressed or in love with the scenes that included the Wizard, but overall the show is a fantastic and grandiose one. There’s a reason it has remained so successful, while other shows have come and gone and some forgotten, during the nearly 13 years that Wicked has been open. It’s worth the admission, so if you find yourself in the city and want a show, this one definitely hits all the right notes.