Opera House Puts on One “Wicked” Performance
If you want to look at a show that’s a true picture of the creative and commercial engines that run mainstream Broadway, you don’t have to go any further than “Wicked,” the road show juggernaut now sitting pretty and green (in more ways than one) at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.
That is, if you can get a ticket.
“Wicked,” the super-spectacular show, is a kind of adult-ish back story of what goes on in the wonderful world of Oz. The show is getting big audiences, a good chunk of them adolescent girls who imagine themselves with green skin putting on a black witch hat, holding a wizard’s wand, bonding with the popular girl.
How big is “Wicked?” It’s the main musical heavyweight on Broadway, there are currently seven world-wide touring companies, including two in North America, it sells out everywhere it lands. And you know what? It’s terrific entertainment. Big and splashy in sets and spectacle, but also heart, not to mention voice. It’s got music and lyrics by Broadway veteran Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell” and “Pippin”), it’s directed by veteran Joe Montello, and it has a wonderful seasoned cast who could probably do this in its sleep, but makes it seems as fresh as opening night on Broadway.
And it has the practically universal national memory of “The Wizard of Oz.” A memory, thanks to novelist Gregory Maguire, which it turns completely upside down and inside out in a way that doesn’t destroy the Judy, Dorothy, Toto MGM fable, but adds an adult and somewhat dark, contemporary edge and depth to it.
Even Dorothy might have enjoyed this tale, a kind of origin story of Glinda the Good and Elphaba, the outsider with emerald green skin and a secret power. As a story, its strongest element is its unlikely bonding story, as Elphaba, the ultimate outcast with her sickly green looks and monotone black and grey style ends up having to room at an Oz prep school with Glinda, the perfect popular posh girl, blonde, radiant, condescending, shallow and proud of it.
But this is a very strange Oz, where munchkins are a joke, animals talk, the wizard is a cynical manipulator who rules with the aid of Madame Morrible, a full-blown maliciously wonderful macabre personality played with unabashed high dudgeon by Randy Danson, the former Arena Stage star who’s making a triumphant homecoming.
In addition to flying monkeys, an Oz that looks more like a sometimes sinister, sometimes splendid New York club, there is tragedy aplenty, there’s Elphaba’s beautiful, wheelchair-bound sister, there is, of course a prince, for whose affections the witches vie, there’s a wonderful professor who’s a goat who becomes a scapegoat, there is revolution and conflict, as Elphaba becomes a very active protector of animals and foe of conformity.
I’ve seen this show in its first – and blockbuster – go around, and for the life of me, I didn’t remember much about it. This version, however, is, if not unforgettable, certainly a wowser, and a big Broadway show that manages to engage heart and mind, maybe not in a Shakespearean way, but in an old-fashioned way.
Some—heck a lot—of the credit goes to Dee Roscioli as Elphaba (she’s performed the role more than any other actress) who not only sings the part with a remarkable rangy and powerful voice, but plays the part in a way that’s engaging, tart, intelligent and entirely convincing. She’s well matched with Amanda Jane Copper as the bright-eyed, high-energy Glinda who becomes—ruefully—Glinda the Good Witch.
Schwartz’s songs and music—including “No One Mourns the Wicked,” “Popular” (which is a showcase for Glinda and which Cooper deftly knocks out of the park) and the signature “Defying Gravity,” the breath-taking act-one number which Roscioli owns, lock-stock-and-lungs—move the story along, without necessarily being the kinds of songs that will, decades later, find their way into a karaoke bar. I have to say that I’m not that big a fan of songs like “Gravity,” which are showcases for lung power and sound awfully like an Olympic competition for So-You-Wanna-Be-an-Opera-Star or Who-Can-Hold-This-Impossible-Note-the-Longest rally. They’re becoming increasingly a part of Broadway musicals, it’s the kind of thing where the audience holds its breath for as long as the note holds, then jumps out of its collective seats.
That being said, it’s the whole package that counts here, and if you get to go, you get your money’s worth, which, we hear, is quite a bit of money for many of the seats.
“Wicked” is here for an extended run through August 21 at the Opera House.