- OnStage Connecticut Columnist
I first saw “Wicked” in early 2004. I was thirteen years old and watched as actors I’d never heard of named Idina Menzel, Norbert Leo Butz, Christopher Fitzgerald and Glinda understudy Laura Bell Bundy retold the story of “The Wizard of Oz.” I remember being captivating by the brassy belting, high-tech witchcraft and the script’s unique mix of social allegory and YA fantasy novel. Over a decade later, a lot has changed. “Wicked” has won Tony awards and spawned dozens of international touring companies. Menzel has become a household name (or at least her alter ego Adele Dazeem has), Butz and Fitzgerald are still having award-winning leading-man success on Broadway and Bundy became a bona fide star herself due to “Legally Blonde.” Casting directors have become allergic to “Defying Gravity” and more high schoolers have sobbed through “For Good” at graduation ceremonies than I can imagine.
As for me, the resulting 12 years also saw a lot of changes. I grew up, graduated school and saw a lot of theater, just not “Wicked.” It’s not that I didn’t like the show, but with so many new things to see, it was never that high on my list. That is until last week when I went back to the Gershwin Theater with my two cousins (ages 10 and 16) to escort them to their first Broadway show and first professional musical.
For a show whose target audience member was barely born when it premiered, “Wicked” is still plugging along quite well. At the oddly timed Friday matinee I attended, the huge, Vegas-style auditorium was packed. Unlike most Broadway houses I’ve been to, the Gershwin is modern and comfortable but bland, lacking the grandiose charm that the (older and much more cramped) Richard Rodgers or Eugene O’Neill has. The entrance is entirely Oz themed, with plenty of places for photo ops. The lobby, too, felt more like an amusement park than a theater, so packed it was with “Wicked” merch, “Wicked” snacks and even a green-screen photo shoot where you could take (and purchase) framed pictures of yourself with the witches. I’m not a theater snob – I can appreciate a good crowd-pleaser and have greatly enjoyed some of the more touristy facets of Broadway – but walking in, it made me wonder what the cottage industry surrounding the show meant in terms of quality. Perhaps nothing, but I couldn’t help but think that “Hamilton” doesn’t need to have a themed lobby or green-screen-yourself-getting-shot-by-Burr photos to enhance the experience.
Technically, the show still runs wonderfully. Eugene Lee’s massive set remains both inventive and utilitarian, Susan Hilferty’s costumes are fantastical (if not a bit hit-or-miss among the ensemble members) and the special effects (both Elaine J. McCarthy’s well-used projections and of course that moment of flight) are done very well. The spectacular aspects of “Wicked” are actually used quite sparingly and practically, creating a nice balance between form and function. Although the music was often deemed forgetting during its premiere, to my ears Stephen Schwartz’s popera score is unique, emotionally charged and just a tad unearthly.
But with no changes to the score or Joe Mantello’s staging since 2003, it is up to the current cast to keep the show in top form. Our Elphaba, Jennifer DiNoia, was new to the cast but not to the Green Girl, after playing her in half a dozen companies and countries. There’s no doubt she has a strong, versatile voice – I’d pit her “No Good Deed” against any Elphie’s – but while DiNoia performed the role well (if not a little rote), I can’t help but wish she had made a few more unique or interesting character choices. Michael Campayno, our Fiyero who joined the cast after staring in NBC’s telecast of “Sound Of Music,” was appropriately matinee-idol bland and handled Schwartz’s tricky music very well. Both veteran Judy Kaye (as Madame Morrible), newcomer Zachary Piser (as Boq) and understudy Tess Ferrell (as Nessarose) brought a lot of energy and personalities to their roles; so much so that I wished the munchkin and the wheelchair-bound sister had more to do. Peter Scolari (most known to me as Lena Dunham’s dad on “Girls”) played the Wizard as a nebbishy drunk with a singing voice mirrored after Joel Grey in an effected but ultimately successful performance.
Even though the musical is technically about the Wicked Witch, it’s always been inexplicably weighted towards Glinda. Yes, Elphaba gets the big ballads, but Glinda’s an inherently more multidimensional, showy role. Perhaps it was this that made the effects of our Glinda’s shortcomings echo through the rest of the play. While the Good Witch’s younger side has always come off like a ditzy socialite, Carrie St. Louis’ overzealous and over-the-top performance turned her into a hyped up toddler who took too many swigs of Mama June’s go-go juice before the pageant. I think Ms. St. Louis was going for a peppy Elle Woods demeanor, but (at least during “Popular”) strained so hard for laughs that it missed Ms. Woods and ended up feeling more like an anthropomorphic Bruiser. Her adult Glinda, by the way, was much better calculated and well sung. I will mention that the audience at my Friday matinee, although quite large, was very sleepy and quiet – there were no big laughs, no mid-show applause breaks for Mr. Scolari’s entrance or Elphaba’s flight – so one could guess that Ms. St. Louis was compensating by hamming it up just a little extra. If so, that was an admirable misfire, resulting in a show whose tone never quite gelled.
Even with all the magical elements on stage, for a show like “Wicked” to work we have to believe that Elphaba and Glinda are real, grounded people and that their relationships are believable, at least to the world the play sets up. We should feel the mixed emotions towards Glinda’s relationship with Fiyero and be genuinely teary by the time “For Good” roles around, which didn’t happen with such a caricatured Good Witch. It also seemed to emphasize the weaker and inherently tonally unstable side of Holzman’s script. The “Wizard Of Oz” jokes felt even cornier and the political commentary fell flat with less gravitas to balance them out.
Overall, “Wicked” was an enjoyable musical but one that felt surprisingly loose and cartoony. Maybe that’s to be expected with such a long running show; edges get sanded down and performances begin to slacken. The Wizard and Glinda became broader in their characterization while Elphaba and Fiyero were left a little one-dimensional. Perhaps a touch of been-there-done-that is par for the course with a musical where one vision been copied around the world for over a decade. I’m very interested to see what will happen to “Wicked” once the rights become available and other directors can put their stamp on it. I think it could really support a stripped down, John Doyle-like production.
At the end, does my kvetching really mean anything? I don’t think so. “Wicked” still has crowded Friday matinees (including a three generational family in my row who all came dressed in matching Emerald City green) and sells out everything from t-shirts to striped leggings. I felt slightly let down leaving the theater: one of the longest currently running Broadway shows didn’t fully deliver, but still plays to packed houses while much more artful and interesting musicals often flounder. (In fact, I saw the national tour of “If/Then” the following weekend and, that show’s issues aside, I got more of a thrill from the incomparable former Elphaba Jackie Burns belting “Always Starting Over” alone and unmoving than anything in “Wicked”). But waiting at the stage door, my 16-year-old cousin told me he decided to buy tickets to “Les Miserables” with his own money for the following day. If “Wicked” led to seeing “Les Miserables,” maybe “Les Miserables” will lead to the work of Tom Kitt or Lin-Manuel Miranda or Jason Robert Brown or Duncan Sheik or Adam Guettel. If so, than who am I to complain?