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Thursday, July 21, 2005


M bought the soundtrack to Wicked some time ago, and it did not wow me. However, I really enjoyed Gregory Maguire's novel (and, frankly, I'm shocked by the number of people who seem not to have gotten the memo that the show is based on that and not on the Baum books at all), so I knew we'd wanted to see it.

The Cadillac (and when I say the Cadillac I mean the Ford Center Oriental Theatre, which is where we saw the show. SCREW YOU CADILLAC WITH YOUR BEING SEVERAL BLOCKS AWAY!) is a strange theatre sandwiched in among businesses on Randolph. The lobby is long and narrow, rendering the interior design, which is done on the same scale as larger venues like the Chicago Theatre, somewhat oppressive. However, I've got no complaints with the theatre itself, and we had great seats on the main floor, just off the aisle.

We had really pushed the curtain and I neglected to pick up playbills, so I had to get the Mto flag down an usher. As soon as I had it in my hand, I had a feeling that someone I knew would turn out to be in the production. It turned out to be Jeff Dumas of Nicely Nicely Johnson fame as a member of the chorus and the understudy for Boq, Nessa's Munchkin boy toy. The understudy part makes for a hilarious joke for an audience of me, because, see, the guy actually playing Boq was quite tall, whereas Jeff is rather premunchkined for your convenience. Annnnnyway.

So I was looking forward to the show with somewhat subdued hopes for the music and content, but primed to enjoy everything else about it. Part of my lukewarm reaction to the music was that it seemed so . . . perky. And when it wasn't perky, it was all Wind-Beneath-My-Wingsy. It was hard to resolve that with the very dark, political nature of the book and the sheer fucked-upped-ness of all the relationships within it. That first impression is, on the one hand, not off the mark, and on the other, not fair to the show at all.

They've made it into a love story. There's no getting around that. And the politics are definitely backburnered. In fairness, though, the politics of the novel are incredibly complicated and would be difficult to pull off in musical format. That said, it's witty, it's tongue in cheek, and it brings out the depth and complexity within almost all the relationships in a way that honors the book. Certainly the Galinda/Elphaba relationship is beautifully layered and complex and made even moreso by the fact that Fiyero, the putative love interest of them both, is pretty and shallow (but not really).

There are some rocky elements to the staging that seem to be the result of wanting to remain BFFE (Best Friends For Ever for those of you who were never a teenage girl and, consequently, won't appreciate much of the show) with the book while secretly informing the rest of the world that the book smells bad and you never liked it much anyway. For example, there's 2/3 of a gold clockwork dragon with ruby-red eyes stuck in the center of the proscenium. It roars and jiggles unconvincingly at the very top of the show, which caused my expectations to be ratcheted down a notch or two, especially as it was accompanied by quite a casual relationship with pitch on the part of a few chorus members in the opening number (which, I'll grant you, is a bitch of a piece; it's going for Sondheim but none of the other pieces put the actors through their paces enough to get them in Sondheim shape).

Behind the permanent proscenium is a circular, wrought-iron proscenium that's beautifully evocative of the dragonclock, which figures prominently in the book. It's a nice touch, implying that all the action is taking place within the prophetic space of the clock, but (a) the clock is mentioned in passing exactly once, so unless you've read the book the implications are lost; and (b) you don't need the cheesy dragon to bring off the effect. The show is very fast paced with only a short intermission, and most of the scene changes are accomplished with set pieces being moved on and off. It's well done and the set transforms easily from larger-than-life spaces appropriate to the "Evita" press conferences to the intimacy of Galinda/Elphaba's room.

Costuming also works well to move the audience seamlessly from one place to the other. The Emerald City costumes borrow heavily from the movie, which enables them to use a fairly simple backdrop to suggest the enormity of the landscape. That, in turn, frees up most of the stage for the Wizard's Hall to be nothing more than an armoire-sized set piece that has an enormous, gilded face on one side (this was a miracle of puppetry, incredibly mobile and expressive; the only downside was it made the dragon look even worse by comparison), and a massive tangle of wires, levers, tubes and buttons on the reverse. I don't envy Gene Weygandt (the actor playing the Wizard) all the awkward choreography of the role, as he essentially has to dance with this giant piece to switch between his human self (who directly addresses Elphaba and Glinda) and his Wizard persona (any time he needs his guards).

Glinda's costumes are also a tremendous success, with just enough of a 40s-era touch to them to avoid looking like the came off the rack from Deb or something. Elphaba's are a bit more "meh." Her travelling suit works over the short term, but she's in it (and in that wretched beret) for so long that the blue and green contrast began to make me a bit seasick. I'm sure they were trying to relieve the outright witchiness of her later black dress with something more on the bodice, but bloodred coffin ruffles were, perhaps, not the way to go. The citizens of Oz also have some problems during the "No One Mourns the Wicked" bits at the beginning and the end. I guess they're meant to be scabby and diverse, representing the different races, but somehow the concept didn't hang together (the shame of Jeff's baldness was covered with a truly dreadful hat and sea hag wig, for example).

Performance-wise, I only had some minor quibbles. As I said, the opening number was a little rocky for the chorus, but they redeemed themselves. Kate Reinders was superb as Glinda. She's got brilliant comic timing and injected just enough awkwardness and uncertainty into teenage Glinda that I was able to forgive a great deal of her later ambition and less-than-admirable actions. We had a strange situation on the Elphaba front. Ana Gasteyer is supposed to be playing her in Chicago at the moment, but we had Kristy Cates, who played the role on Broadway and in Toronto, instead. She has a hell of a voice, but her acting was often a bit too much. She plays the more mature, sadder, and wiser Elphaba quite well, but doesn't quite pull off the fierce and awkward teenage Elphaba as well. Her body language was too jerky, her speech too halting.

As reduced as Dr. Dillamond's part (and the whole political issue of the talking animals) was, Steven Skybell was excellent. I can't fault Rondi Rhodes for her portrayl of Madame Morrible, but the role is pretty ridiculous as written. I guess they wanted to leave the Wizard ambiguous, but weren't comfortable without a definite, moustache-twirling villain. Heidi Kettering was fine as Nessarose and had nice chemistry with Cates, but she doesn't have much to do in this incarnation, and her costuming was far too bland for someone we're supposed to believe is preternaturally beautiful. Also, I understand sidestepping the fresh hell of having an armless character and simply confining her to a wheelchair, but you then need to do a bit more work to up the slowly-going-crazy-in-a-really-creepy-way factor, and they didn't.

Fiyero's character is pretty thoroughly gutted by the treatment in the play. He's only incidentally a Winkie prince. His conversion to Elphaba's cause is pretty unbelievable (mostly because it's so secondary to the Glinda/Elphaba relationship in this), and although they completely got me with the happy ending twist (uh, not that kind of happy ending), it's a really, seriously silly wrap up to the show. And, uh, I don't really care, because Kristoffer Cusick was totally adorable and thoroughly charming. Shallow? Definitely, but I really enjoyed his performance.

When the show lost out on a bunch of Tonys to Avenue Q, I thought it was probably valid, given the apparent shallowness of show. I don't know Avenue Q at all, so I can't comment on it comparatively, but there's certainly a lot more to Wicked than I thought there'd be. Even acknowledging that they've taken a complex novel and boiled it down to a witty, amusing 2.5 hours of theatre, it's enjoyable and well worth seeing.

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