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BWW Reviews: WICKED at the Cultural Center of the Philippines

BWW Reviews: WICKED at the Cultural Center of the Philippines
The Clock of the Time Dragon greets the audience at the Cultural
Center of the Philippines Main Theatre. Photo by Chriselle Fajardo

By Rocky Christopher Fajardo

Manila, Philippines, February 14, 2014--It was an all-consuming rebirth in color as cascades of lush and textured emerald lights sprung to life in an intense surge from the heart of the stage, as a map of Oz, especially rigged as a stage curtain for the Cultural Center of the Philippines' (CCP) Main Theater, raised to unravel a fantastic tale: One told in the Philippine premiere of the blockbuster megamusical WICKED. Witnessing the opening of the first act is an experience in itself so vibrant that it gives spectators the sensation of diving headfirst into the Technicolor world of classic MGM, the film outfit that immortalized Judy Garland in her iconic role as Dorothy Gale in 1939's "The Wizard of Oz".

Locked in an elaborate embrace, the overlapping waves of the almost breathing colors of the set design and costumes (of characteristically twisted Edwardian aesthetics), and props, all magnificently topped by the ominous Clock of the Time Dragon glaring forebodingly from up above (as if an oracle of only bad omens), gives birth to an effect purely primal and instantaneous in its nature: A cold and deep awareness that this is no prologue to a fine fairytale romance or an impassioned moment kindling a saga of love at first sight. The opening musical number takes you straight to the ruins of a second political assassination, one committed by an innocent young girl from Kansas: The murder of the solitary figure amidst the hurricane of unionist upsurges; the primary cause of fear in all of Oz; and through this unwarranted crime, the genesis of a backstory now about to take a frontseat is told.

The initial flourishes of Maestro David Young's baton leading the orchestra into the overture of "No One Mourns the Wicked" ushers in the flawlessly choreographed chaos of the Ozians heralding the news of the death of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba. To the discerning ear, the first few bars of the rousing overture appears oddly tinged with an undertone of sadness, as if intentionally held back from realizing its potential for a full explosion of unbridled celebration. In a recent interview by BroadwayWorld.com with the show's composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz during his recent trip to Manila, he acknowledges the duality of the song: The carefully interlaced pathos within the Ozian's triumph over Elphaba's death; and the dual substance of strained compassion and dark victory within Glinda's role in the celebration of the Wicked Witch's demise. An impeccable antithesis of sorts to the chirpy Munchkinlander ditty "Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead" ("The Wizard of Oz," MGM, 1939), "No One Mourns the Wicked" is bold (owe it to the musical genius of Schwartz), tinted with an inhumane savagery and overwrought with an unacknowledged remorse (and for good measure) that is shadowed by each joyous thundering of the phrase "She's Dead". Only until the effervescent entrance of Suzie Mathers' Glinda does the jubilation reach its ultimate height as she whips the diluted fear and intensifying relief into an escalating frenzy. Clad in all her cheeky and pompous splendor as she floats down in her gigantic bubble (one among many feats of engineering brilliance in set design by Eugene Lee), Glinda tackles the multi-faceted roles of journalist, narrator, moralizer, and unauthorized personal historian of the fallen foe.

BWW Reviews: WICKED at the Cultural Center of the Philippines
Lucy Durack, Jemma Rix star in the Australian production of
the Broadway smash WICKED. Photo by Jeff Busby

"No One Mourns the Wicked" holds the central key in unmasking what is left to be understood about Elphaba. Schwartz's genius as a lyricist with a remarkable gift for storytelling is outspoken and organic here. In a matter of minutes, Schwartz plunges in quick, steady pace into the depths of the most crucial aspects of Elphaba's mysterious conception; the extenuating circumstances surrounding her birth; and the roots of the repulsion that the long-misunderstood green-skinned heroine have endured. By the song's denouement, one is in grips, with a feeling of wonder at the seemingly dual roles that Glinda takes on within the number. How is it possible that a champion of all that is good, also harbor a subtle and unassuming compassion for her adversary? Did we miss an important glitch in the bigger, brighter picture? The opening song accomplishes just that: Make room for a plethora of questions and prove just how big a can of worms has been opened. Glinda, and in the longer run, WICKED, attempts to answer these and more throughout the course of the musical. As for the most pressing query of all "Is it true that you and the Wicked Witch were really friends?" Glinda's edgy reply proceeds to take the Ozians back into her days with Elphaba in Shiz Academy, and farther beyond into her rebirth as the Wicked Witch.

It is important to understand why the Winnie Holzman's book for the musical is a compelling story in itself. WICKED's deliberate pace and sympathetic determination is solid in its nurturing undertaking of plot and character development; it manages to flow naturally on its own, especially for the audience member who comes into the theater bearing predetermined notions on the history of Oz and its pioneering figures. Four or possibly even five alternate worlds of Oz may align or collide spectacularly on the stage of WICKED. If one has read the Gregory Maguire book, which inspired the musical, or even possesses a substantial amount of schema based on L. Frank Baum's original chronicling of Oz, an inclination to be wary towards WICKED is foreseeable. Yes, there are subtle tweaks and minor alterations in the interweaving of certain backstories to certain characters and locations (necessary all) in the adaptation of the Maguire manuscript into the Holzman book. Be not afraid, they are not nearly blatant enough to send you screaming out in blasphemies out of the theater.

Karen Mortimer Johnson's impeccably measured and executed stage direction speaks volumes about the characters' unspoken motivations. Whatever disturbing bleakness in the climate of the political quagmire in the Oz of the Maguire novel that may seem to have been toned to a degree of blandness in Holzman's book, other key elements of the musical (lighting, effects, and stage direction; stage design; costumes and props; choreography and movement; and the music) more than make up for it in impartial proportion.

BWW Reviews: WICKED at the Cultural Center of the Philippines
Suzie Mathers (Glinda), Jemma Rix (Elphaba) reprise
their roles in the Australasian tour of WICKED in Manila.
Photo by Chriselle Fajardo

Pivotal points in character development are intertwined in the brilliantly crafted lyrics and dramatic undertones of each song. Take for example Elphaba's very revealing "No Good Deed" and Glinda's multidimensional declarations in "Thank Goodness". The wealth of backstories, motivations, personal dreams and demons, and epiphanies all abound within the inferences that a keen observer can accumulate throughout one number alone. Cyphering these golden nuggets is the basic (and perhaps one of the most enjoyable) challenge for the seasoned musical theater lover. These songs will take you on a veritably engaging treasure hunt (if you allow them to), with the entire ensemble providing excellent cues throughout their interpretations. Be wary however because some lyrical signposts are so deliciously and intricately weaved into Schwartz's harmonies, sweeping orchestrations, and arrangements, that at times you will find yourself just mesmerized to distraction by the spectacle of the masterful combination of the live audio and visual experience of it all. It would be a pity to miss out on how your favorite Ozian encounters with Schwartz's personal epiphany. In case you do get pleasantly dreamy, there's no harm in catching WICKED a second time around; after all, its run at the CCP has been extended.

The stage lighting itself is a living organism that expands and matures along with the plot and the principal characters. Its crescendos are delicate yet powerful enough to be operative conveyors of depth of mood and resonance in setting that the dialogue or lyrics may have deliberately skimped out on for the sake of efficiency. The understated magic of the lighting and effects is that it subtly catches you unaware: Emblazoning onto the subconscious a deeper appreciation and fuller comprehension of what is transpiring onstage, even within the characters. Like the role that actual light plays in the processing of a photograph, the lighting in WICKED is in effect sublime in its majestic capacity to burn lasting images of key scenes onto the mind. Add that to the inspired set design with its overall inner workings functioning exactly how it is designed to work and look like: Precisely engineered clockwork, and we have a perfect concoction. The intricacies of the sets combined with the lighting direction and effects fully complement the pacing of the musical; and swift in its ingenuity at adjusting its well-oiled gears to accommodate the quick costume and scenery changes.

Mathers' and Jemma Rix's Glinda and Elphaba (respectively) are both transcendent onstage. There is genuine chemistry to be seen and appreciated in this pairing--owe it to what the quick eye can catch in the subtle infinitesimal hints. Mathers and Rix have uncannily honed an almost persistently perfect timing: Playing on each other's personal cues, which is slightly evident in the most miniscule of side expressions they give each another. From the precise smoothness in their exchange of lines on how loathsome they find each other in their first duet, "What is This Feeling?", to their homage to the friendship they are about to bid adieu to in their final duet, "For Good". In the latter, the pressing question at the end of "No One Mourns the Wicked" (Is it true that you and the Wicked Witch were really friends?) is finally answered: Yes, they are good friends, two best friends.

BWW Reviews: WICKED at the Cultural Center of the Philippines
Jemma Rix (Elphaba) and Suzie Mathers (Glinda) display
a stage chemistry that is palpable.
Photo by Chriselle Fajardo

The chemistry between Mathers and Rix does not end simply in their adeptness at picking up where the other one has left off: It also expands farther into their well-complementing vocals. The sleek texture of Mathers' voice marries perfectly with the gaudiness of Glinda's character. Mathers' complex shifting from ditzy dialogue to sudden melodious bursts of purely crystalline soprano notes is so immaculate and natural that it lulls the audience into a comfortable listening stance. All attributing to her vocal technique just the appropriate amount of a conversational style of singing, that there are times when one forgets that she is indeed skillfully taking on a difficult song that demands intricate vocal maneuvers and phrasings. She masterfully accomplishes all these rigorous vocal tasks with the gifted instrument she possesses. Even her shrill cheerleader gasps are melodious. Her take on "Popular" incorporates just the right flair of physical comedic skill into her rendition, so as to not completely overshadow the song's relevance to her character development. She outdoes herself even more in her well-seasoned and heartbreaking reprise of "I'm Not That Girl"; and ultimately, in the rollercoaster ride of moral ambiguities that she goes through as her vocals reach a luxuriously thick and emotionally matured tonality in "Thank Goodness". Rix, on the other hand, has a lush, earthy, and almost sensual vocal resonance. Elphaba, as characterized in the Maguire book, is a natural-born singer. The casting of Rix justly satisfies this prerequisite. Her low notes have stunning velvety strokes that, throughout all her songs, add the effect of a primordial creature in a calculating, crouched position, all ready to strike. And strike it does as she effortlessly thunders out challenging notes with her powerful chest register in the songs "The Wizard and I" and the tamer "I'm Not That Girl". Her careful and well-planned dramatic buildup to the climax of WICKED's banner song "Defying Gravity" is fully transformative and breathtaking in its tantalizing effect, in her self-ordainment as the Hanna Arendt of Oz. She revitalizes the song with a confident and compact veracity in humanizing its heavy themes of self-actualization and determination. In totality, Rix's and Mathers' combined performances in this Manila staging of WICKED are the perfect audio-visual embodiment of a tug-of-war between grim and glitz.

Steve Danielsen's Fiyero is an understandably befuddled and delicious romp of sorts, typical to the charismatic boy-next-door archetype, effectively mirroring the shallow Glinda. Danielsen bears an almost teetering, diluted reticence to his vocals, but there are unabashed moments however when he surprises the audience with his vocal stamina. Bolstered by his impressive control and endurance in sustaining emphatic notes, his befittingly relaxed demeanor in the song and dance showcase of the rambunctious "Dancing Through Life" allows him to deftly exude and retain a certain Spartan rigidity in his manner. Danielsen as Fiyero oozes with a rare appeal that rewards him with an ephemeral devil-may-care chemistry with both leading witches of WICKED, in that any outsider looking in would be happy to see him end up with either girl.

BWW Reviews: WICKED at the Cultural Center of the Philippines
Maggie Kirkpatrick plays the press secretary of The Wizard,
Madame Morrible. Photo by Jeff Busby

Australian theater luminary Maggie Kirkpatrick's brave take on an out-and-out imperturbably rigid characterization of Madame Morrible surprisingly works well. She gives no pretense of being motherly, and her sternness from the first moment she steps onstage endows her with a tight-lipped veneer that leaves you with an uneasy feeling that her coldness and severity has deeper, wickeder roots. Kirkpatrick's turn as Morrible is perhaps best described as resulting from a careful study in the integration of two highly-contrasting landmark Bette Davis's characters producing a mutation of the devious Regina Giddens in "Little Foxes" and a slight hint of the nurturing Lily Moffatt in "The Corn is Green".

Seasoned theater, film, and TV actor Jay Laga'aia is in full form in his deceptively avuncular Wizard, a pure delight in the giddy flaunting of his flirtatious dancing chops. The vitality in his portrayal cements a stark contrast to Kirkpatrick's Morrible, and an even blunter one to the gargantuan mechanical head that he peruses to intimidate all of Oz--leaving one to wonder who among them authors the most sinister pages in the devious duo's grimmerie of evil manipulation: The Wizard or the Press Secretary?

The ensemble rightly earns high acclaim for their back-breaking brilliance in all their strong interpretations, heavily contributing to the backbone of the entire production. They hold nothing back when it comes to consistency in the gusto of their performances. Such is also evident in the well-studied and delivered interpretations of other members of the supporting cast: Edward Grey as Boq, most notable in his transformation from loyal and adulating schoolboy to embittered caretaker to Emily Cascarino's Nessarose, who also seamlessly metamorphoses from spoiled ingénue into a power-hungry, political iron lady.

A bigger role is cast for the Clock of the Time Dragon with its glowering head and menacing red eyes, as it becomes fully alive in the second half leading to the climax, re-animating the entire stage into a haze of dread. It becomes a fitting, accompanying omen to the rebirth of Elphaba as the Wicked Witch, when she recites her first spell under the bidding of the Wizard and Morrible. The lighting and stage direction escalates in steady glory in "No Good Deed" and reaches its sublime peak when Elphaba ascends to the heights of "Defying Gravity", as the whole of Emerald City is plunged into a darker shade of green: Murkier and more sinister. The entire display seemingly engulfs and baptizes the audience in an Ozianesque rite of passage. Thus fulfilling a prophecy from the first act that something bad is happening in Oz: Political propagandas fueled by dastardly manipulation and sham.

BWW Reviews: WICKED at the Cultural Center of the Philippines
The Company of WICKED reaches the finale of ONE SHORT DAY,
a travelogue of sorts to Emerald City. Photo by Chriselle Fajardo

In the moments leading to the bittersweet happy ever after of the musical, Mathers uninhibitedly takes the audience to the elaborate duality of Glinda's anguish in full spectrum. Having just witnessed the fall of her best friend, her weariness is in essence palpable. Mathers' visage, a full-rounded reflection of grief and subdued exasperation at being brazenly manipulated by Morrible and the Wizard, is indeed completely human that one genuinely aches for her. Here it is seen that it is not only green that grew up, glitz grew up as well.

This Manila staging of WICKED is as prodigiously, even more so, enthralling and entertaining to behold as witnessing an intact Kansas bumpkin house transported via hurricane to a Technicolor land is. Its enchanted lures draw you into its thick vortex of magic and splendor, yet all the while, successfully nurturing and keeping its heart intact. In the Maguire book, Elphaba's conjecture "What you call conscience, I prefer to call instinct" is a decisive pre-determinant to Elphaba's musical creed "let all Oz be agreed I'm wicked through and through" in the song "No Good Deed". This is the sad shadow of the musical's heart: The dual substance of human nature as exhibited within the throes of Elphaba's insistence on ignominy and her contradicting, all-consuming need for love and acceptance. The entire spectacle of WICKED, in its beloved proclivity to warm the hearts of its patrons, is in itself a pulsating looking glass that is fully pregnant with the power to make one understand and believe that the central characters are after all still human. Regardless of skin color, fantastic pedigree, or personal ghosts, like its audience, they too are bound to acutely mortal and selfish aspirations and personal quests for a place over the rainbow. For both Elphaba and Glinda, and for the rest of us, whether the quest brings meaning and purpose, or a temporary calm from the harsh torrential rulings of this sometimes one-dimensional world, what truly matters is that the journey has been set, whether taken to it on an ostentatious bubble, a gaudy technicolored balloon, or a self-effacing broomstick.

WICKED at the CCP must close Sunday, March 9. For tickets, visit ticketworld.com.ph.

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