Review: "Wicked" - North American Tour

Joseph Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Theatre Critic

When I first saw Wicked in 2008 in Chicago, audience members around me were wiping tears from their eyes and I wondered why they were crying. I must be missing something as I didn’t ‘get it’. I remember the beautiful costumes and fantastic set design along with the dazzling ‘Defying Gravity’ show stopper at the end of Act One, but that was it. Whenever I saw advertised the show’s periodic summer return to Toronto, I never chose to attend as I thought nothing would have changed from Chicago.

Fast forward ten years of life happening.

I purchased a ticket with some close friends for this Wicked’s touring final preview performance before its’ 2018 summer Toronto run. My friends were taking their four children, eldest at thirteen and youngest at eight, and asked if I would like to attend with them.  Perhaps seeing the show through the eyes of young people might give me a fresh perspective of the story.

Wicked is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman. The story is told from the two perspectives of central characters of Galinda (later name changes to Glinda in the story’s plot) and Elphaba and their lives before and after the arrival of Dorothy Gale in the land of Oz. There are some wonderful line references to the iconic 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz. I did read Mr. Maguire’s book and this musical only follow its events rather loosely.

Susan Hilferty’s costume designs are still gorgeous to see. Eugene Lee’s settings, Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections, Chic Silber’s special effects and Kenneth Posner’s lighting all combine effectively to transport us to the land of Oz for a couple of hours. The staging of two vocal and choral numbers for me were worth their time to watch: ‘Dancing Through Life’ and ‘One Short Day’. Orchestrations and sound balance were a bit off in the first act as I had some trouble hearing all the lyrics in Act One, but it was immediately rectified in Act Two and clarity was thankfully restored.

Somehow, I still wasn’t feeling ‘it’ from all this colourful window dressing at the top of the show even though the audience applauded rapturously after each musical number. Then Jason Graae, in a grounded performance as the Wizard of Oz, tells Elphaba, “You have to give the people what they want”.

And then it clicked for me, and I got it.

 Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

Wicked might initially be viewed as a story of a rite of passage for pre-teen and teenage girls, but there’s more here now as ten years have passed. Given such turmoil, upheaval and change in our world provincially and abroad, sometimes we all need a little Wicked in our lives to distract us momentarily. This company amply provides that magic for us to leave these world issues alone for a few hours.

At this final preview, Allison Bailey’s performance as Glinda was delightfully controlled with bubble-headed abandon and glee.  Ms. Bailey was equally matched in performance strength by Mary Kate Morrissey. Ms. Morrissey captures a dark, seething and brooding Elphaba with empathetic compassion. Her ‘Defying Gravity’ at the end of Act One is dazingly exciting to watch and to hear. The ladies had tremendous fun in some of the banter and repartee of words during their conversations.

I was also impressed with the charming and dynamic performances of the supporting characters. Catherine Charlebois as the wheel-chair bound Nessarose, Elphaba’s sister, both stole and broke my heart more than once particularly in those moments she shares with the initially and boyishly shy Munchkin, Boq, Cole Doman in a quietly understated and tenacious performance. Jon Robert Hall is a dashing Fiyero. Jody Gelb is deliciously devilish as headmistress Madame Morrible. Discrimination rears its ugly head in a minor subplot and Chad Jennings becomes a gallant and valiant Doctor Dillamond. I applaud Chase Madigan and his nimble and agile movement as the monkey Chistery for donning a costume that would have probably been rather restrictive and hot when he first essayed the role.

Final Comments: Sometimes, it does take possibly a second or third viewing of a play to experience its dramatic impact and intention. For this reason, I wanted to give Wicked another chance. Attending the musical with young people made me appreciate the story as they told me later they liked it. When they get older, and obviously with my friends’ permission as the novel is quite ‘adult’ in nature at times, I might even encourage them to read the book.

For those of us Wizard of Oz aficionados who grew up watching it religiously and faithfully each year, Wicked allowed me to re-visit my childhood fondly once again with youthful wonder. Without spoiling the plot, it is clever to see how some of the characters from this play might have possibly fit into the 1939 film. I may even pay a visit to Judy Garland shortly even just to imagine if this plot logistics could work.

Wicked runs to August 5, 2018 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria Street, Toronto.  Visit www.mirvish.com for further information or telephone 1-800-461-3333 for tickets. Evening performances begin at 7:30 pm and matinees at 1:30 pm.

Photo of the National Touring Company of Wicked by Joan Marcus.

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Directed by Joe Mantello