Monday, September 12, 2005

STAGE: Wicked

Over Labor Day, George and I finally got the chance to see Wicked. We'd been wanting to see this since it had gotten so much buzz on Broadway, but we didn't plan far enough ahead when we went to New York, and I wasn't fast enough on the ball to get tickets here in Los Angeles before the entire 6-week run quickly sold out. So we made a trip to San Francisco to see it there. We are so glad we did. The show is absolutely phenomenal: great music, great story, great performances, great staging. It completely deserved to win Best Musical Tony and then some. Some shows are enjoyable for an evening, but every once in a while, you experience a show that you know you'll remember for years if not a lifetime. (I enjoyed Avenue Q, but will remember Wicked a lot longer.)

So what makes Wicked so incredible? Any classic show has a great story for its foundation. Wicked begins with a creative concept: the "back story" of the Wizard of Oz, expaining what really went on before and during the story we know so well. Imbue the story with great characters and great themes. In this upside-down Oz story, we only catch a fleeting glimpse of Dorothy's shadow, while the focus is on Elphaba (later known as the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (the "good witch"). Subverting everything we thought we knew about Oz, we learn that Elphaba may not actually have been so wicked after all, but perhaps just misunderstood because she is green. There is great character development in the interaction between Elphaba and Glinda (who is, in a word, blonde) as fate makes them roommates at school. One of the great themes dealt with in this story is judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. (While the green-skinned Elphaba primarily makes this point, it has also been subtly reinforced with some of race-blind casting. On Broadway, Ben Vereen played the Wizard of Oz, while in San Francisco, we had a white Wizard and the handsome black actor Derrick Williams took over the romantic lead which was created on Broadway by white Norbert Leo Butz.) Another great theme is the conflict between being true to your own values versus doing what is popular and politically expedient. The Wizard is a man of the expedient school, and while he is not very admirable, he does make a wise point when he explains (in song) to Elphaba that history is written by the winners, and the only difference between a dictator and a liberator is in who is telling the tale. As the story sounds notes on these lofty themes, the characters evolve in interesting ways, primarily Elphaba and Glinda, but also Fiyero (the romantic interest), the Wizard, and Elphaba's sister Nessarose (a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the East). The story is neither simple nor sugar-coated, but from its darkish Dickensian tone, notes of hope and heroism come through, though alloyed by realism and cynicism.

This intriguing story is elevated and made to soar with music that is still in my head weeks later (and not because I bought the CD -- I didn't -- though I put it on my Amazon wish list). From laugh-out-loud numbers like "What is this Feeling?" (when Elphaba and Galinda first meet) and "Popular" (Galinda doing an "extreme makeover" on Elphaba), to show-stopping inspirational numbers like "The Wizard and I" and "Defying Gravity", to the beautiful, tear-drawing "For Good", Stephen Schwarz' music and lyrics are classic. Add to this a marvelous set that enhances the production at every turn, with some impressive stagecraft, but no gimmickry for gimmickry's sake (a lesson that the LA Center Theatre Group's new artistic director appears to be learning the hard way, but that's another story).

The cast were all very talented. Eden Espinoza was awesome as Elphaba, with a voice that stopped the house more than once. And Emily Rozek, who was the understudy for Galinda, was more than equal to the task -- were it not for the slip of paper in the program, we'd never have known she wasn't the "star". Derrick Williams was great as Fiyero, the playboy prince who is deeper than he thinks he is, and David Garrison was notable as a Harold Hill-ish Wizard of Oz. We also missed Carol Kane, who plays Madame Morrible, but Brooke Elliott made the part her own.

I don't know why they're doing such short runs in major cities like LA and SF. This could have easily run for months if not years in Los Angeles, as the Phantom did. But if you have to hop on a plane to New York, Chicago, or somewhere else, go see this musical!

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