Wicked, currently settling in for a three week run at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, is wicked good. This production is the first I have seen of this popular musical that has bewitched audiences, young and not-so-young, since 2003.
The 1939 classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” is my only reference for the characters and themes of Wicked, which is based not on the Wizard of Oz novels by L. Frank Baum, but rather on the 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire, with book by Winnie Holzman, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.
Wicked goes back in time to the birth of Elphaba, the baby who was born completely green and was later known as The Wicked Witch of the West. It follows her years at school where she meets Galinda, later Glinda the Good, for the first time, their friendship, and their years following school, including events after the unexpected and startling arrival of Dorothy Gale from Kansas. New characters are introduced, notably Doctor Dillamond, the goat professor whose way of life is threatened, Madame Morrible, whose name speaks to her personality, and the handsome Fiyero, the “deeply shallow” love interest of both Elphaba and Glinda.
Elphaba (Jessica Vosk) and Glinda (Ginna Claire Mason) are the ying and yang centerpieces of this musical, and both excel in their roles. Glinda is the essence of the blonde joke. She is perky, she is popular, she is completely self-involved, and, as my grandmother would say, “not overly bright, dear.” Elphaba is her flipside – serious, somber, unpopular, concerned for the well-being of others, and very smart indeed. The power of their unlikely friendship is at the heart of the story, and through that friendship each learns from the strengths of the other as they grow into womanhood. There are slipups along the way, of course, which add humor, drama, and pathos, as well as making it possible to have a story.
Which brings us to another plotline, that of the demagogue and what happens when one person becomes too powerful, particularly when that person is completely unprepared and incompetent. I speak of the Wizard, or His Ozness, as he is called. He is well-played by Fred Applegate, as a combination of a sweet, kind father figure and a cynic with an eye for the main chance. His take on his belief in moral ambiguity, “truth is what everyone agrees on,” is in contrast to Elphaba’s sincerity. Their interactions awaken Elphaba to the knowledge that people are not always what they seem to be, even Wizards, and one must be careful in placing trust in others.
Jeremy Woodard as Fiyero is quite the handsome dude and there may be more to him than meets the eye, his dissolute behavior notwithstanding. He shakes things up when he arrives at school with the song “Dancing Through Life.” Elphaba and Glinda are both quite smitten, and we know someone is going to be very sad at some point. Elphaba’s song, “I’m Not That Girl” speaks to the heart of almost every tween and teen girl I have ever known. Which is why this musical is so very popular with that demographic.
I enjoyed the evening immensely, and while some elements of the story are not exactly fresh and new (pretty girls are more popular than plain ones, fascism is always a threat, racism exists, not to mention species-ism), the struggle of Elphaba, Glinda, and Fiyero to find and be their best selves is appealing to young people who are at just that point in their lives when they are striving to find their places in the world. And it appeals to older people because they, or should I say we, were once in that same place. And because it is really fun to watch – for everyone. There were many young people in the audience, and the ones I saw were very enthusiastic.
The songs are well-crafted to fit into the storyline and express the fears, dreams, and wit of the characters. I like the amusing “What Is This Feeling?” about loathing another person, and “Popular” that are expressive of "schoolgirl issues.” The love song, “As Long As You’re Mine” is fierce. Elphaba’s ode to being fed up, “No Good Deed” speaks to all who are mad as hell and not going to take it any more. The first act finale “Defying Gravity” put on quite a show in itself.
Putting on quite a show is what this musical strives to do, and it does it quite successfully. It all happens with a great deal of flash and fanfare. Gears turn, lights flash, the fog machine works overtime, creatures fly around, bubbles appear. The set is a show in itself. Its steampunk-like 19th century gears turn silently, with a sidereal clock in the background, and a red-eyed fire-breathing dragon overlooking it all. I was not aware there were dragons in Oz, but again, I only know the movie version. The Victorian-meets-Hunger Games costumes were strange and whimsical and weird. I liked them a lot, particularly the black and white garb at the dance and the green Oz getups. I also like that the back story for the flying monkeys, the lion, tin man, and scarecrow were included and were integral to the events unfolding. And I like that there was no attempt to “prettify” Elphaba, whose beauty is of another kind.
You can see all of this and more until June 4th at Shea’s Performing Arts Center.