Review: a rather Wicked sensation

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It’s been 13 years, but there seems to be no stopping one show that's still defying all that gravity can throw at it. I’m speaking, of course, of Stephen Schwartz’s smash hit Broadway show “Wicked.” First released in 2003, “Wicked” tells the “untold story” of the witches of Oz before Dorothy quite literally flew onto the scene. “Wicked” is currently on tour, and where should the dear old Wicked Witch of the West decide to park her broom for a few weeks but South Bend’s own Morris Performing Arts Center. Prequels and origins and backgrounds, oh my! Walking into the theatre, the audience is greeted by a gigantic and incredibly detailed map of Oz. But once your eyes have perused the map, they may wander up to a gigantic mechanical dragon that keeps watch over the premises. This dragon is the Time Dragon of the Time Dragon Clock, and it’s not just for show. The lights darken, the giant map rises and the dragon comes to life, spewing smoke and lighting up its huge red eyes while writhing over the audience.  The orchestra starts up the foreboding and eerie staccato notes that begin “No One Mourns the Wicked,” and thus commences the opening number of the show. The Ozians dance around what used to be the Wicked Witch of the West, cheering “good news, she’s dead!” Then, Glinda the Good Witch enters in her bubble, encouraging the residents of Oz to “rejoicify that goodness could subdue the wicked workings of you-know-who.” Glinda then attempts to answer the question, 'are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?' The song recounts the birth of the Wicked Witch by an affair (nothing is shown onstage and it’s heavily downplayed) and her family’s rejection of her due to her ghastly green color. Glinda ends by saying “so you see, it couldn’t have been easy!” In the midst of the celebration, someone dares to ask Glinda to confirm a dark rumor: that she actually was once friends with the dastardly villain. Glinda reluctantly admits that, yes, they were classmates at dear old Shiz, one of the foremost universities in all the land of Oz. They were more than classmates, as it turns out. The two, in a very “Odd Couple”-esque move, are thrown together as roommates. The quiet and brooding bookworm Elphaba (the pre-Wicked Witch herself) and the self-absorbed Galinda (she changed her name halfway through her time at Shiz) are not happy with the arrangement and make their preferences known in a hilarious duet (“What Is This Feeling?”) As the show goes on, we see the two grow close. We see Elphaba trying to protect her handicapped sister Nessarose; we see Galinda fall for Fiyero, a handsome new student who thinks that life is only good for “dancing through;” and we see Elphaba standing up for the rights of animals who are no longer being allowed to so much as speak. Elphaba even goes so far as to defy the very Wizard of Oz to do what she feels is right. In this show, we see the origins of not only Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch, but we see how the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion came about their strange maladies. But what took me most by surprise is the variety of real-world messages that really need to be heard today. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re in for a lesson. “Wicked” is much more than an origin story. One of Elphaba’s favorite professors, Dr. Dillamond, happens to be a goat. Through him, Elphaba learns that animals are quickly being forbidden from holding public offices and even from speaking. Soon, Dr. Dillamond himself is removed from Shiz. Elphaba seeks to stand up for those who are being suppressed, which carries a pretty large weight today. Elphaba will go to any lengths, even so far as becoming “wicked,” in order to give the people she cares about a voice. On top of that, we see Galinda agreeing with anything in order to get the mass approval she so desperately needs.  Through her, we see the damage such actions can do. We see Fiyero learning that life is much more than just dancing, and we see characters fall in and out of love until we’re not quite sure what to expect. We see Nessarose pining after a boy who can’t love her because his heart’s already been won, and we see what true jealousy can do to a person. In “Wicked,” life’s about much more than a ruby red pair of shoes. These characters are developed to a tremendous degree in the story, but that development would be nothing without the tremendous cast. Singing and acting that’s downright over the rainbow. I have to start with Elphaba herself, portrayed by Jessica Vosk. Going in, I tried to remove all memory of Idina Menzel’s groundbreaking performance in the role and to look with fresh eyes upon Vosk’s portrayal. I needn’t have bothered. Vosk blew me away with the power in her voice and the character she was able to portray. I fell in love with her character the moment she finished “The Wizard and I,” in which Elphaba dreams of a day where she’s actually accepted and celebrated rather than looked upon with disdain. I had to chuckle, still feeling incredibly sorry for her, while she nonchalantly danced by herself at the school ball. I rejoiced when she found those that loved her, and I was dismayed when she fell. I was also completely blown away with her rendition of “Defying Gravity,” although I must admit that may be partially due to the absolutely dynamic nature of the song itself. Still, Vosk’s ability to belt the song while flying in midair was more than impressive, it was magical. To complement Vosk’s high-flying Elphaba is her love interest Fiyero, who was actually played by understudy Travis Taber for the performance I saw. Taber gave off the stuck-up vibe Fiyero needs to display, and I found myself aspiring to reach the literal heights his voice hit. The changes he gave to Fiyero between acts were very well done, and it gave his character a lot of momentum that is desperately needed. It took me a while to get with him, however, as he came across a bit stiff when we first met him. Still, he was redeemed by the end, and I was rooting for him. Amanda Jane Cooper lends her bubbly personality to Glinda the Good, but I can’t help but wonder if it was just a bit too…much. She began well, giving Glinda the air of a benevolent monarch and queenly distance. However, her portrayal of the much younger and much less experienced Galinda was disconcerting at best and flat out irritating in scarce worst moments. While I understand the choice to emphasize Galinda’s valley girl nature with a breathy voice and high-pitched squeals, Cooper may have overdone it a bit when I began wondering if she was going to hyperventilate during “Popular,” where Galinda tries to help Elphaba with her own image. Cooper spoke-sang most of the song, with plenty of the aforementioned breathy delivery and some very low-pitch spoken lines, which left me wondering exactly why Elphaba was letting this girl anywhere near her with a hair curler. Still, as I said, I understood the choice to try to distance this Galinda from Kristen Chenoweth, the originator of the role, and her perky cheerleader-esque Galinda. But this isn’t to say Cooper’s performance was bad. On the contrary, overall she did an excellent job, especially in character development. To call Galinda a dynamic character is an understatement. She learns so much over the course of the show that she’s practically a different person, and Cooper portrays this beautifully, gradually dropping the breathy Galinda for a more subdued and thoughtful Glinda who is struggling with keeping up an image and showing loyalty to her worst-enemy-turned-closest-friend. I almost completely forgot the questionable “Popular” performance when I saw her sing “For Good” at the end. It probably helped a bit that I was almost crying at that point as well. These three were the main players, but backed with a truly wonderful Wizard portrayed by Stuart Zagnit and a dynamic ensemble, the whole show kept my interest with a true sense of spectacle. But the cast weren’t the only wizards of the show. The wonderful technical wizardry of Wicked. Almost bypassing the performances is the technical wizardry. I’ve already mentioned the Time Dragon Clock, which frames the entire show. In fact, the clock’s face shows up in many of the backdrops throughout the show, forever reminding the audience that time’s always moving and shaping these characters. Gears and ropes decorate the proscenium, completing the clock theme and placing the entire story within it. I also have to mention the Wizard. Not the actor, but the gigantic face that has terrified children for generations. This face was just as unsettling, with fluid motion and mouth movements that (gasp!) actually match the actor’s words. It was downright amazing and extremely entertaining to watch. I was utterly shocked when it first rolled onstage, and when it left, I kept asking myself “do I get to see it again?” These standout mechanics were perfectly complemented by lighting designer Kenneth Posner’s expert touches. From rainbow spotlights illuminating Elphaba during “Defying Gravity” to complete color changes whenever the Wizard makes his appearances, Posner’s artistry was ever-present, but never overpowering. They’ll get you, my pretty, and your little wallet too! Anyone who has tried to get tickets to this show, or any large-scale Broadway show for that matter, is aware of the substantial price tag. But I must say, if you have time and the budget, try to get a seat to this show. Sure, it’s not the dark and gritty real-world entertainment we’ve been taught to love, but I was expecting a children’s show and was greeted with a show for adults as well with messages that go much deeper than even the original movie ever did. I was blown away by the spectacle of the mechanics and the characters I fell in love with. It took me on a rollercoaster that I wasn’t expecting. “Wicked” is dark enough to portray the trials of real life, but it’s still hilarious, heartwarming and uplifting while still sobering, reflecting and making attempts to call out its audience. There are moments that adults may find childish or juvenile, but those are far outweighed by the density of the messages and dynamics within the show. All in all, “Wicked” takes you to an Oz you haven’t seen before. But by the end, you feel at home with these characters and their crazy world. As Dorothy says, there truly is “no place like home.”
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