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It takes a measure of audacity to tread into Oz territory, as
songster Stephen Schwartz (Godspell,
and writer Winnie Holzman (television shows My So-Called Life and thirtysomething)
do with their new musical, Wicked. The original
novel by L. Frank Baum, published a century ago, is a perennial best-selling
children's book, as ingrained in American kid culture as Raggedy Ann, Mickey Mouse, and
Barbie. The 1939
film won Oscars for "Over the Rainbow" and the
score (but lost out to Gone With The Wind for best picture). Stage adaptations
appeared as early as 1903, as recently as 1997, and include the successful 1975 all-Black,
light-rock adaptation, The
But Schwartz and Holzman didn't start from scratch; Wicked is based on a popular 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire which creates, in effect, a prequel to the original, albeit a work aimed at adults rather than children. With a contemporary viewpoint that turns the original on its head, Wicked, the novel, is considerably darker and it has distinctively political overtones. It takes the form of a biography of Elphaba, a girl who was born green and grew up to become the Wicked Witch of the West.
Holzman's script for the show, reviewed here from a late preview, is surely not yet "fixed," and it is in need of further development which undoubtedly will continue until the show's projected Broadway opening in October. But a number of the essential elements have been well achieved. The story is told as a flashback, related by Glinda, who grows up to be the Good Witch; the show gives Glinda and Elphaba fairly equal time and is centered by their friendship, which starts (on a rocky footing) when they become roommates in college.
What is crucial, and what works well here, are those two characterizations. Glinda isn't simply good--she's a goody-two-shoes, smug and full-of-herself, the pretty blond who is probably a cheerleader (she can twirl a baton), dresses like a prom queen, and arrives at school with a truckful of designer luggage. Still, the role is kept light enough so that she somehow comes out likable.
Elphaba, on the other hand, is smart, informed, and politically aware--aware, for example that the Wizard (a dictator) is impinging on civil rights, depriving the animals of the right to speak, banning them from libraries. Elphaba, being green, has had a tough time of it, coming from a dysfunctional family. When her mother was pregnant with Nessarose, her younger sister, her father gave her mother a potion intended to prevent the baby from being green like Elphaba. As a result, Nessarose was born with normal skin, but with shriveled legs and she is confined to a wheelchair. Elphaba blames herself for her sister's disability, is guilt ridden, cynical, and quite bitter, feeling unattractive and unliked.
So the Wicked Witch's wickedness is given psychological underpinning and she becomes a sympathetic character, while the Good Witch is--well, a blond who needs some lessons in life. With Kristin Chenowith (a young star with a big voice) indisposed, Glinda was played, on short notice, by understudy Melissa Bell Chait (Titanic). It played like a classic triumph-of-the-understudy scenario, as Chait, with charm, wit, poise, and an operatic soprano, made the role her own. When her dress got caught on a swing from which she descended, forcing her to stay in place a moment or two longer as a stagehand freed her, she didn't miss a beat and smiled broadly to an already appreciative audience. Idina Menzel (Rent, Aida) has a big voice and projects well, but the direction makes her relentlessly intense and the script makes her the dour, humorless one, even if she is the hero. She doesn't get a chance to show much range in temperament.
In featured roles, Carole Shelley (Cabaret, Showboat) is Madame Morrible, who rises from headmistress of the school to become press secretary to the Wizard. She gets some of the funniest lines and a well-defined attitude, all milked to the full with the superb skills of the veteran that Shelley is. (It's a role that would have been a natural for Hermione Gingold or Angela Lansbury.) Norbert Leo Butz is the romantic lead, Fiyero, who gets caught in a triangle between Glenda and Elphaba. He sings well and is energetic, but the character is characterless as written and the energy has no place to go. He changes from the playboy who doesn't acknowledge love to the White Knight who finds he has a heart, but the role is so underwritten that there's neither resonance in his transformation nor chemistry in the romance.
Septuagenarian Robert Morse is cast as the Wizard and he emotes the same elfin charm that he's used successfully in roles like Barnaby Tucker and J. Pierrepont Finch. Alas, he has trouble projecting his voice now and the sentimental soft shoe steps he's given are just enough to recall more supple days (and haven't much to do with the rest of the show). The Wizard is supposed to be a bad guy here and that's been diluted significantly in the script, presumably to fit the actor. Morse would make more sense cast as a Munchkin. His appearance is a nice gesture, but it weighs down a show that is already struggling with too many plot strands, as well as sometimes confused and inconsistent motivations. Liberal use of Oz-ish language ("I'm exhaustified!") seems coy and overdone
John Horton has a lovely, brief role as a teacher who happens to be a goat, but is doomed by the Wizard's prohibition against animals speaking. Michelle Federer impresses as Elphaba's wheelchair-bound sister, another nicely inverted role.
Stephen Schwartz's songs give the leads ample chance to demonstrate their vocal skills. Overall the tunes are serviceable, but undistinguished, generic Broadway stuff--no "Over the Rainbow" here, at least on first hearing. There's a lot of well-choreographed movement on stage, but little in the way of real dancing. Eugene Lee's settings are elaborate, from the red-eyed flying dragon looming over the proscenium to the very green Emerald City. He injects every conceivable bit of stage magic: clouds of smoke, whirling ribbons, bubbles, streamers, stilts, roller skates--"It's all so Ozmopolitan!" The imaginative lighting by Kenneth Posner significantly enhances the production design. Best of all are the costumes designed by Susan Hilferty (Into the Woods) which are stylish, amusing, apt, and completely original.
You gotta root for a musical that has some real intelligence in its basic premise--thoughts about being different, about abusive political regimes, about moral ambiguities. There's much to admire in Wicked, but director Joe Mantello should not be misled by notoriously easy-to-please San Francisco audiences. He has his work cut out for him to get Wicked up to Broadway standards by October.
Reviewed from a preview performance, San Francisco, June 4,2003 - Arthur Lazere