OnStage Texas Critic
DALLAS, TX - Say what you will about Wicked, but this is one of the very few musicals in theater history that did not need awards or waves of critical acclaim to survive the blistering cold, business world of Broadway in becoming a hit.
I hit the yellow brick road to New York to see the original Broadway production of Wicked the very week after it opened back in 2003 at the gargantuan Gershwin Theatre, starring Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth. A fun fact about Menzel, when she went to the original callbacks, she cracked badly on the high note of "Defy Gravity". She went home in tears for she felt she lost the role. But Director Joe Mantello found that moment at her callback endearing, and she got the role that would lead her to a Tony award.
Since savoring the original Broadway version, I have seen this mega hit musical not only again in New York, but in several national tours.
Tackling the role of the girl with green skin, I've seen Stephanie J. Block (who did Elphaba in the first workshop), Eden Espinosa, Shoshanna Bean, and Dee Roscioli.
Wafting in Glinda's bubble I've enjoyed the work of Annaleigh Ashford, Kendra Kassebaum, Alli Mauzey, Kate Reinders, Jenn Gamatese, and Megan Hilty (who was a powerhouse!).
At the 2004 Tony awards, Wicked stepped into Radio City Music Hall with 10 nominations. Everyone predicted that it would win Best Musical. But in a major shocker, it would be the puppets from Avenue Q that would take home the Tonys for Best score, book, and musical. Wicked took home three Tonys (Sets, Costumes, and Best Actress for Menzel).
Back in 2003, the week before I saw the original production I had read the mixed reviews that the New York critics gave the musical. I must admit I do agree with some of the problems they addressed in those reviews. The book has its moments of becoming lost, sluggish, and struggles to find its footing in several key scenes. Winnie Holzman's book actually steers away from the darker overtones of the novel. But where she fails the most is in fleshing out several supporting characters that are major plot points. Such as Madame Morrible, Nessarose, Boq, and even the Wizard. These characters serve as major influences and story plot twists in regards to the journey that Elphaba and Glinda take not only with each other, but with the audience as well. But Holzman's lethargic book fails to fully explore and flesh out both the subtext and characterization of these roles. It doesn't help that Stephen Schwartz did not compose at least one major, full solo song for the majority of these characters to sing.
The problems that I saw in 2003 are still there. The musical screams for Madame Morrible to have one good song to explain her hidden motives and personal history. Another great moment lost was a good ballad for Boq to sing in regards to his tragic outcome in Act II. And still to this day I just feel that the second act song sung by the Wizard ("Wonderful") just stops and kills right in its path the dramatic intensity that Elphaba had created prior to that scene. The song does not move the story or emotion whatsoever. It's roadkill that forces the deeply moving emotion to stop dead in its tracks.
But none of this matters, for Wicked did not need any silver, spinning medallions or praise from the critics, the musical has gone on to still have sold out houses, not only in New York, but with its national tours. It has shattered several box office records and has become of the biggest grossing musicals of all time, with no hint of slowing down.
When mega hit Broadway musicals repeat and return on tour, slowly you will see a physical change from the first national tour to the current one on the road. A great example of this is Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The 1st national tour had an exquisite castle, tons of scenery, special effects, costumes, and a large cast. But as it toured over and over through the years, the tour slowly transferred into cheaper looking sets or major set pieces becoming painted backdrops. There were less special effects, the costumes looked lifeless, and the cast shrunk in size.
Thankfully 99% of Wicked has remained intact after all these years. They have kept all the glitz, sparkle, and lavish design as both the original New York version as well as in past national tours, with only a few minor tweaks. You still see the extravagant costumes by Susan Hilferty, the grand scenic design by Eugene Lee, and the sublime lighting design by Kenneth Posner.
As mentioned earlier, I have seen the original Broadway production, then returning twice to see it again in New York, and saw every national tour of Wicked that came through Dallas. This time around I did see a few scenic changes. For instance, when we arrive at Shiz University, originally the upstage set piece was a miniature of life-like buildings where light shined through the various windows. This time it is now a painted backdrop (but it still has lights pouring from the windows). Another set piece change was the Bridge. Both in New York and in the majority of the tours, various characters and scenes took place on the actual bridge. Originally Elphaba hid under the bridge as Glinda and Fiyero on the bridge kissed, which led to the song “I’m Not That Girl”. In this current tour the bridge is there, but no longer has the walkway. But a new set piece has been added in the Castle where Elphaba hides. There is now a decaying wishing well with branches, which is used for a great moment towards the end of the show. But again, minor changes that for any first time audience member would not even notice.
I was extremely surprised and found exciting the slight changes in the orchestrations. It was like a nice new coat of paint was splashed onto the score, giving many of the songs a new energy. The diehard Wicked fan will get a wonderful thrill in hearing the changes in tempos, instruments, volume, and twists the orchestrations now have. I discovered that this really made the score fresh and grand!
One of the greatest thrills I get in reviewing Wicked over and over again is seeing how both the leads and ensemble tackle the show, not only vocally, but in their acting craft and approach to the characters. Sure, not everyone saw the original production, but so many have the cast recording that I’m sure they have listened to non-stop. This musical has become so iconic now that each actor has the challenge to create their own version of those roles. As stated before, I’ve seen quite a few in these roles that made them their own. This current touring cast not only met the challenge, but achieves resounding success!
A touring company will go all around this country. So to do the same show/role over and over again, well it can cause casts to go into auto pilot and just go through the motions. I’ve seen here and there other national tours of mega hit musicals have this touring fatigue show in their work. Not with this cast!
Kudos must be paid to the ensemble. Their energy was magnetic and they set the tone for the evening right out of the gate with the opening number. Their vocals were so tight, crisp, and clean. I particularly loved the new vocal moment the ensemble have in “No One Mourns The Wicked”, in that they decrescendo right on vocal cue, and then belt in full unison. They play a variety of roles all evening long, and instead of blending, you clearly see they each have their own character. They may not say a word, but their body movements, facial expressions, and commitment to scenes really made them all stand out. They also execute Wayne Cilento’s musical staging beautifully, particularly in “Dancing Through Life”. This ensemble glittered brighter than any emerald gem.
As Madame Morrible, Wendy Worthington served up a delicious plate of evil and comedy. This immensely talented actress seemed to channel Dame Helen Mirren as The Queen with a dash of Dame Edna thrown in with her portrayal of a professor who becomes the Wizard’s press secretary. Her facial expressions were priceless and her comedic zingers were perfection. Ms. Worthington is a prime example of why that role so desperately needs a terrific solo musical number of her own.
Stuart Zagnit is charming as the Wizard, even though we know he has a darker mission for Elphaba. Megan Masko Haley’s approach to Nessarose was so, so, much better than in past actresses who have done the role. Haley gave her more warmth and shyness, which made the audience show great compassion for her. Haley’s emotional change in Act II in a dramatic scene involving Boq and her sister, had a darker subtext that has not been there in past performances of other actresses. Sam Seferian gives a fascinating new interpretation of Boq. Past actors seem to aim their interpretation of Boq going gaga over Glinda. But Seferian instead shows deep, true love for her, not some college boy crush. But where Seferian really shines is in the aforementioned scene with Nessarose and Elphaba in Act II. He does not go for the obvious jokes regarding what has happened to his life or his people the munchkins. Seferian instead gives the role vivid anger and resentment. But once he sees what Elphaba has done for her sister, Seferian shows heartfelt happiness. He smartly does not allow the weakness of the book to affect his performance; he rises so high above it and delivers a much more grounded and fleshed out role than what I’ve seen in some past actors who have portrayed Boq. Jake Boyd portrays Fiyero, the spoiled rich playboy who arrives at Shiz University with a hangover. Book wise, you see and feel the struggle Holzman dealt with in making this character work. I’ve seen some past actors (both on Broadway and on tour) either win or strike out in this role. It takes a capable, vigorous actor with a sharp set of acting tools to make this character not only come alive, but to build a solid character that is not on paper. Mr. Boyd accomplishes that so superbly; that he delivers the BEST performance I’ve seen of this role ever. He so smartly avoids of staying in the paint by number framework of frat boy that others have done with this role. He builds instead a boy who becomes a man. He doesn’t just flirt with Glinda, Boyd shows that Fiyero really is falling for her, that is until a very special moment. Sitting so close to the stage it was a terrific treat to see the intimacy and internal moments involving the triangle of the three principals (Elphaba, Glinda, and Fiyero). When Boyd (as Fiyero) touches Elphaba’s hand for the first time, his facial expressions showed right then and there his heart had been moved by this green girl. Boyd physically is tall with handsome model features, all wrapped up in a galvanizing stage presence. His chemistry with Emily Koch (as Elphaba) is sensual, erotic, and passionate. I’ve never seen this before in past productions, not even in the original. This is a family friendly musical, but I actually thought this raw chemistry between Boyd and Koch so invigorating. The Act II scene between Boyd and Koch as they sing the duet “As Long As You’re Mine”, they reconstructed this number to have sizzling, sensual heat. Boyd displays his subtext throughout his performance. He possesses an extraordinary tenor voice that makes all his songs quite memorable. His vocal belt is robust with a vibrato that grips his tenor vocals firmly. His Act II scene work is outstanding in that he shows his heart battling between the two women in his life, while is mind struggles with his royal position as Captain of the Guards of Emerald City. I’ve never seen an actor dig deep into this particular role to make it so layered, fresh, and much more complex. Boyd’s performance is phenomenal.
Kristen Chenoweth added her own special comedic timing and delivery to slay the audience in laughter. All the past Glindas have been wise not to recreate Chenoweth’s performance. Amanda Jane Cooper is no exception. This powder keg of comedic power explodes within Cooper’s performance. From Chenoweth on, they all have inserted ad-libs and new comedic bits, suffice to say Cooper does the same thing. This girl knocked the audience to ground, howling in laughter due to her comedic chops. Her song “Popular” is a major showstopper. She creates this musical number to become so hilarious with an amalgamation of physical comedy, side splitting facial expressions, and vocal inflections. Her comedic timing, delivery, and pace is like observing a master class in comedy.
When it is time to switch into the darker, dramatic overtones of the character, Cooper is flawless. Her discovering the betrayal of Fiyero with her best friend, Cooper breaks your heart due to her acting craft. Her chemistry with Koch in Act II in the castle is devastating and so emotionally strong. Cooper and Koch sing with stellar success the well-known duet, “For Good”. Cooper has a vocal range that can go from pop straight into crystal pure operatic soprano at the drop of a diamond tiara! She delivers a commanding, superior performance as Glinda the Good.
As Elphaba, Emily Koch is a magical, superlative discovery! As in every actress who has taken on this mammoth role, the first thing you have to find out if the girl can sing- Ms. Koch sings like a vocal tornado. She smartly knows where to sing in softer tones within her songs, or when to let out that massive belt that washes over the audience. She easily turns the 11 O’clock number “Defy Gravity” into the humongous showstopper that it is. But she also brings down the house (no pun intended) with “No Good Deed”. Her soprano voice reaches its highest range and she holds that note for endless measures with an iron clad vibrato. One of the best discoveries is how Koch has changed the music to work within her vocal range. For example in the soft ballad, “I’m Not That Girl”, normally Elphaba ends the song in her lower register (Alto). Not Koch, she instead goes up a key to finish the song in a higher vocal note, which honestly makes the song sound so much better. She sprinkles throughout her musical numbers key changes and volume to make these numbers her own, and she triumphs in every single song.
Her chemistry and character subtext connection with Cooper (Glinda) and Boyd (Fiyero) is peerless and sublime. Koch’s acting craft and subtext ebbs within her performance when it comes to the man who stole her heart and her best friend. She emotionally glides from hating this blonde hyper roommate to becoming her true best friend. It moves the audience so much to see this transformation. She goes from a timid girl into a woman with power and magic. With Fiyero she displays in organic honesty a woman falling in love. As stated before, her chemistry with Fiyero (Boyd) in Act II is so hot it would melt that metal gold robotic face of the Wizard! Koch has to carry the show on her shoulders. It falls to those who portray Elphaba to deliver the goods. Koch delivers a tour de force, dynamic, spectacular performance as the Wicked witch of the West.
As someone who has seen so many productions of Wicked, this is one of the finest, first rate companies to being to life the magical world of Oz. But what gives this company and especially the principals such high praise is how they have created a completely new version that is out of this world! So follow that yellow brick road to the Music hall. Believe me when I say, you have not seen nothing like this before thanks to this sensational