Wicked – the Musical

For those who haven’t seen the Broadway production, this one was worth the wait. It features a troupe of actors that’s very strong if noticeably on the young side (especially the chorus), giving a revved-up performance in a physically lavish production. The scenic and lighting elements are complete duplicates of the original Broadway wizardry,
Stephen Schwartz’s score has sharper lyrics than music.. Big numbers such as “Defying Gravity” (Elphaba’s Act I closer) and “For Good,” the last of several Elphaba-Glinda duets, have been talked about enough to stand out, and they do pack an emotional wallop. But there are other numbers that are just as big, among them “I’m Not That Girl” and “No Good Deed.” The few songs that are truly charming stick to the Broadway formula, such as Glinda’s “Popular” and the Wizard’s song-and-dance, “Wonderful.”

Most theatergoers will find Wicked well worth the big ticket price. It’s a whomping good show that puts its politics front-and-center, all wrapped up in a big, entertaining package.

The musical is a wildly ambitious work, introducing us to Elphaba at the moment of her birth. We see her as a little green infant, as a green college student, and then as a green political reactionary, fighting the warped politics of Oz and its questionable leader, the Wizard. It’s a rambling, completely absorbing look behind the scenes, into the past of a set of characters we only think we know and understand so well.

Wicked the musical is not Wicked the novel. While the novel is its source, the musical presents only pieces of it, in a much simplified form, and often diverging wildly from the novel’s narrative.

Wicked, for all the hype, is simply the prequel to the popular Oz story. It’s a layered piece of drama that uses its musicality as a way to convey some of the deeper issues it sets forth. When Glinda floats onstage in her metal bubble, you know you’re in for something different. She announces that the Wicked Witch of the West is dead, and the Ozians rejoice – until one of them asks if Glinda and the Wicked Witch were friends.

So begins a flashback that encompasses almost the rest of the show, as Glinda recalls the circumstances of Elphaba’s birth and their time together at Shiz University. There’s a moment early in the Shiz section when Elphaba appears for the first time.

When Elphaba ends up as Glinda’s roommate, the first phase of their relationship is forged: They despise each other. Glinda hates Elphaba’s greenness, and Elphaba can’t stand Glinda’s blondness. One can’t say they’re color-blind, but at that point they’re blind to everything else, most remarkably to the realities of their future (which we already know, of course).
Elphaba has some magical power. And when that power is pointed out as a potential ticket to see the Wizard himself, she sings “The Wizard and I,” The play establishes Elphaba as a girl who desperately wants to be seen for her soul, not for her color. She believes that if the Wizard himself believes in her, everyone else will have to follow suit – and so meeting him is all she sets her sights on.

I don’t want to spoil the show for you. But from this set-up comes a vast array of disappointments and choices that, when combined, reveal that nearly nothing in Oz is what it seems. Those who are said to be good might just be wicked, and vice versa.

One of the great treats of Wicked is that it answers questions no one thought to ask. Seeing The Wizard of Oz, you don’t stop to ask how anything got to state it was in. Oz just is. Or is it? In Wicked, you’ll see how things happened before you started paying attention: How the scarecrow and the tin woodsman and the cowardly lion got that way. Where Elphaba got her hat and broom. How the Wizard got to be the Wizard. And more.

Wicked is in an open-ended run at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theater, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are available at any Broadway in Chicago box office, by phone 312-902-1400, or online at ticketmaster.com

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