Michael L. Quintos
When it comes down to it, trying to convince rabid or even casual fans of the hit Broadway blockbuster 'WICKED - THE MUSICAL' into seeing the show again (and again… and again) when it comes to their town really doesn't take much of a struggle.
No matter how many times over the years that WICKED has landed in our own backyard, the demand for tickets is still high (hence the often long engagements the show has on our stages). Now finishing up the final week of its national tour's latest return engagement at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through March 6, the "popular" musical continues to be a must-see favorite, and shows no signs of slowing down.
WICKED first debuted on Broadway in 2003 and became an instant hit, and continues to be 15+ years later. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, on February 14, 2016 the show surpassed RENT as the 10th longest-running show on Broadway, and has earned almost $4 Billion across several productions worldwide.
The musical's remarkable longevity is, of course, a testament to its powerful and comfortably familiar story, one that is based on Gregory Maguire's novel, which cleverly imagines an intriguing backstory that pre-dates the events involving Kansas runaway Dorothy Gale dropping into the merry ol' land of Oz—made famous in L. Frank Baum's classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (circa 1900) and its iconic 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland.
In WICKED, audiences of all ages and backgrounds instantly adored and connected with the shaky but believable friendship that develops between two of Oz's most notorious personalities: the ostracized, short-tempered, green-hued Elphaba (who would later be known as the Wicked Witch of the West) and her ditzy, wildly-beloved, attention-loving blonde frenemy Galinda (who will later go on to be known as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North) while studying at Shiz University. The two disparate ladies first meet as mutually-annoyed adversaries but soon become surprisingly good friends... before parting ways as—well, you'll just have to watch the musical to find out (if there are even any of you left out there who still have not).
WICKED is still so incredibly satisfying that—I kid you not—when I recently saw the show's second national tour come through OC during its opening week, none other than the show's celebrated composer Stephen Schwartz and book writer Winnie Holzman both came to watch a Friday evening performance of the show together!
See? Even its creators are still proud of what they've achieved!
So, 15 years later... for the many of you who have yourselves previously experienced "One Short Day" in the Emerald City (many times over), is WICKED still worth seeing at a city near you for the umpteenth time these days?
Absolutely! And here are 10 pretty good reasons why...
1. It brings to life the clever backstory to one of pop culture's most renown fantasy stories!
Baum's fantastical tale filtered through Maguire's origin story rightly serves as the blueprint for Holzman's witty book that all but guaranteed its continuing status as an audience favorite. A perfect blend of pop culture nostalgia and modern inventive story layering, WICKED smartly hooks in people who've only ever heard of that darn twister that brought a Kansas house down on a witch right in front of a yellow brick road.
It's true. All around me during this recent tour, I overheard first-time WICKED audience members conversing that they've never seen the show, describing it to each other merely as… "oh, I guess the show is about all that happened before Dorothy arrived in Oz… so it's basically like a prequel to the movie!"
Well, that certainly sounds like a logical enough summarization.
Now say what you will about the show's slightly flawed second act... Be that as it may, WICKED, even after multiple viewings, is still, as a total musical production, remains one of the most enjoyable, entertaining musicals of this relatively young millennium.
2. That music!
By now, the music of WICKED—penned by Schwartz, the man behind other Broadway staples that include PIPPIN and GODSPELL—is seared into our memory banks the way radio hits become earworms. Even today, the show's unforgettable catalog of songs—"The Wizard and I," "What Is This Feeling," "Popular," "One Short Day," "I'm Not That Girl," "As Long As You're Mine," and many others—remain marvelous, now classic concoctions of incredible wordplay and beautiful melodies that will make you laugh, cry, or even take up a little spell-casting. It's hard to pick just one favorite, thank goodness.
3. The not-so-hidden messages of tolerance.
As our nation (heck, the world, actually) still grapples with being as divided as ever, WICKED continues to be a not-so-hidden treatise on tolerance and acceptance of people's differences.
In an interesting parallel with non-fiction events that still transpire in our country, entities labeled "odd" become fodder for ridicule, even in the progressive state of Oz. Elphaba's outer pigmentation is met with fear, prejudice, and disgust, as is the "talking" animal in the faculty of Shiz University. Even Elphaba's sister Nessarose, confined to a wheelchair since birth, is viewed somewhat as an "other." Slowly, we, the audience, see people for "who they truly are"—the good and the bad on the inside, not for just how they look on the outside.
And, additionally to a certain extent, even before HAMILTON was hailed for its color-blind casting, this show itself paved the way for several actors of different ethnicities to play various lead roles, an admirable move that has made WICKED's themes ever so much more vivid and poignant.
4. It's a feast for the senses!
Is it just me or did the WICKED set (by Eugene Lee) get even more spectacular than prior productions (or perhaps all of this awesomeness on stage has me easily-dazzled)? That's quite a nice surprise, if this is indeed the case, to see a second national tour production go out on the road with what looks like an even more ornate, opulent set. From the animatronic time-dragon clock to the Elaine J. McCarthy-designed projections in the upstage part of the set to the wild ivy crawling up the proscenium, everything about the touring iteration of WICKED is top-notch. The same can be said for Susan Hilferty's gorgeous costumes, Kenneth Posner's lighting, Tony Meola's sound design, Wayne Cilento's movement and choreography, and Stephen Oremus' still rousing orchestrations.
It doesn't matter how many times I see WICKED... each first reveal of a new environment/setting is still a breathless "wow" moment—from the first sight of Galinda's bubble and Shiz University, to the antiqued overhangs of Dr. Dillamond's classroom, to the green sparkly glow of Emerald City, the Wizard's golden bust lair, and even Elphaba's castle hideout.
If the WICKED tour is your first time seeing a Broadway musical live... prepare to be entranced!
5. This current tour cast!
The wonderful side effect of seeing a long-running show—and even more so on tour—is witnessing what each new actor brings to their respective roles, allowing audiences to experience fresh, unique acting/singing choices, yet still with hints of what we've come to enjoy and love about the characters in the first place. I especially look forward to watch what each "new" Galinda brings to “Popular,” the song which feels the most improvised and spontaneous of any of the show's scenes. And, let me tell you, the current Munchkinland tour's Galinda, played with infectious, bubbly glee by Amanda Jane Cooper, does not disappoint. From her first entrance in the bubble to her last tearfully touching farewell, Ms. Cooper is a wonderful addition to the Galinda sisterhood.
Across from her, looking positively emerald is the current tour Elphaba, played with fierce intensity by Emily Koch—whose deeper, husky voice is a riveting surprise for me in the role, allowing the most contrast I've ever experienced between our dueling divas. Her take on a much more haunting "No Good Deed" was a chilling highlight, and her lower speaking register really fit the character, adding another intriguing layer to Elphaba's wounded heart.
I also thoroughly loved the current actors embodying the Wizard and Madame Morrible, played by Stuart Zagnit and Wendy Worthington, respectively. Worthington's voice and delivery are especially appropriate for the role, reminiscent of the darker cadence of a stern older nun at a Catholic private school. Also worth mentioning is the great acting and vocal work essayed by Chad Jennings as goat-professor Dr. Dillamond, Sam Seferian as dejected Munchkin Boq, the lovely Megan Masako Haley as Elphaba's wheelchair-confined sis Nessarose, and swoon-worthy Jake Boyd as the charming, smolder-ific BMOC Fiyero that comes between Galinda and Elphaba.
And, uh, speaking of Fiyero...
6. Fiyero's Infamous Pants!
Yes, Fiyero's different pairs of pants deserve their own slot in the countdown! Okay, I'm only slightly kidding.
But, really, we first see these extraordinary marvels of sartorial engineering as the leisurely young Winkie Prince is wheeled into Shiz to the delight of Galinda (and the secret squeals of Elphaba, probably), then he reappears with similarly fashionable pairs in different fabric shades throughout the musical. Bravo, Mr. Boyd, for donning them all confidently (of course, it helps that he sounds great singing and dancing in them, too)!
7. Seeing the Beauty of Genuine Friendship
Witnessing the evolution of Elphaba and Galinda's relationship—the ups, downs, joys, sorrows, jealousy, forgiveness—is still the heart and soul of WICKED, and why it's such a pleasure to experience over and over again. Despite their differences, the two strong-willed women's love for each other transcends (or, rather, defies) all the noise and racket of the world around them. Although they are continually separated by their personal beliefs, they still manage to acknowledge that knowing each other and having each other in their respective lives is the best gift of all...
8. "For Good" Still Elicits Genuine Tears
This incredible friendship spawns one of the most beautiful duets between best friends I have ever experienced on stage.
"Because I knew you... I have been changed for good."
Um, excuse me while I "ugly cry" in my seat for a gazillionth time.
9. Spotting THE WIZARD OF OZ Easter Eggs
Fans of Baum's THE WIZARD OF OZ (both in print and the cinematic one), will enjoy having plenty of "Hey! That was in THE WIZARD OF OZ" moments throughout WICKED, purposely sprinkled to maximize this musical's direct link to that source material.
As this is the "prequel" story, many of these interesting, winking references don't come barreling down until the second act, but look for cute, subtle nods to things like familiar footwear, magical "specialties," even a few blink-and-you'll-miss-it easter eggs before Dorothy's eventual arrival. Even Dorothy's future yellow brick road travel companions make amusing cameo appearances.
10. The Triumphant Glory of "Defying Gravity"
After seeing the show multiple times, this defining, high-flying moment is, hands down, still the most thrilling part of the show.
How could it not? Elphaba, who begins her journey as a self-effacing, awkward young lady, wary of being too outwardly expressive, soon accepts—and even embraces—her true self, weird powers and all. She is, naturally, led by her need to do what's right, even if it's not what society deems is "normal." What an interesting twist to the "Wicked Witch" we all thought we knew!
She later discovers the true face of evil and in her surprise act of defiance (itself deemed evil via well-timed propaganda), literally soars above all those that threaten her convictions. And what a sight it is to see Elphaba belting her anthem several feet in the air!
It is certainly a moment in the show that tests the actress tasked to play Elphaba to sing out her emotions up to the rafters, and do it with raw grit and divalicious aplomb. (Though, honestly, a part of me still wonders what it would be like to witness the rare moment when the "lift" malfunctions—thank goodness for my fellow audience members that I haven't yet)
But, really, for me... it's all about those glorious top notes! Aaah aaah aaahuh haaaaa!
** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **
Photos from the 2nd National Tour of WICKED - THE MUSICAL by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Review also published in BroadwayWorld.
Performances of the 2nd National Tour of WICKED at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, March 6, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.