BWW Reviews: WICKED Books Return Flight To Costa Mesa
What do you get when you introduce an iconic, well-known familiar story with newer, layered elements that reveal things from behind the so-called Emerald curtain? Let's just say it's a show where the witch isn't entirely the wickedest person in the land. Arguably the biggest blockbuster stage musical of our rather young century, box-office behemoth WICKED has returned to Orange County for an almost month-long engagement at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which will play to an expected packed house each night through April 3. The good news of the show's 2nd National Tour making an extended stop here, no doubt, has been "rejoicified" by the show's local fans who've been waiting for its triumphant comeback to a much closer venue than New York.
Based loosely on Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West—which adds additional layers of back-story to Frank L. Baum's classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—WICKED, the stage musical, has been a consistent hit since its Broadway debut seven years ago, and has ballooned into a worldwide phenomenon that shows no signs of waning. It's really not a surprise that this crowd-pleaser is such a resounding, critic-proof hit, considering that the show is a near-perfect combination of imaginative story, sympathetic yet complex characters, incredibly memorable music, fantastic sets and costumes, and even universally-applaudable messages of tolerance, animal rights, and individual self-expression. It's a visual and aural splendor from start to finish, and has incited the kind of loyal fanbase that rivals any teen idolatry from the last century.
Told from the more sympathetic points of view of the two main witches of Oz, this Tony Award-winning show tells the "real" story of Elphaba (here played by Anne Brummel), the eccentric misunderstood outsider who would later be known as the Wicked Witch of the West. At the start of the show, there is a jubilant celebration among the denizens of Oz proclaiming the good news that the Wicked Witch is at last dead (at the hands of Kansas tourist Dorothy). Glinda, the Good Witch (here played by Natalie Daradich) heralds the death as "good conquering evil." Yet, there's a melancholy in Glinda's recitation. After a pointed question to the sparkling lady with wand and tiara, floating above in a bubble, we begin the journey of discovery, revealing the truth behind what truly constitutes evil.
It turns out the evil Witch had a rougher-than-usual childhood: her mother, married to the Mayor of Munchkinland, had a secret affair with a green-elixer peddler of unknown origins. Upon Elphaba's birth—emerald skin and all—the man she knew as her father begins a life-long shunning, even blaming her for the physical ailments of her younger sister Nessarose (Michelle London). And unlike what we were told in Baum's original novel—and the massively popular movie it spawned in 1939 starring Judy Garland—Elphaba was actually friends with Glinda (she was known as Galinda first, a name she would change later). The two meet and reluctantly become roommates while attending Shiz University. While there, Elphaba is discovered to be a "star" pupil by school Headmistress Madame Morrible (Marilyn Caskey) who sees great things in her future, much to Galinda's jealousy.
The two future witches couldn't be more different: jaded but smart Elphaba struggles with fitting in (her skin, after all, is "unnaturally" green), while self-absorbed mean girl Galinda is perky, quite popular and usually gets her way. At first the two can't stand each other, but they eventually grow to be each other's best friend despite clashing idealogies, differing wardrobes, falling for the same shallow cad, Fiyero (David Nathan Perlow), and their opposing political convictions. The latter, we learn in depth-defying fashion, is the impetus for Elphaba's eventual wicked reputation, elevating her as an evil villain that she has been mistakenly portrayed to be in The Wizard of Oz.
Aided by a catalog of melodic, expertly-crafted songs by Stephen Schwartz and a reference-heavy book by Winnie Holzman, WICKED is a truly remarkable musical that is intelligent, without being too far removed for an audience of any age to fully buy into and grasp. Along with funny vignettes and rousing musical numbers, WICKED is chock-full of hammered themes that include the importance of friendships, the acceptance and celebration of everyone's differences, and the ideological battle between personal gain versus doing the right thing. Other than a few minor (albeit humorous) head-scratching plot developments in the second act that admirably tries to tie story points to The Wizard of Oz, WICKED, as a whole, is so seemingly well-thought out in every detail, creating a commercially-appealing piece of populist entertainment but yet is still quite artistically-rich in all aspects. Guided by original director Joe Mantello (with musical staging by Wayne Cilento), the show still displays a perfect balance of theatrical artistry and impressive musicality.
There's plenty to adore in this show: from the funny repartee between the likable (and even not-so-likable) characters, the gorgeously-rendered musical numbers that truly move the story forward, to the great harmony in dance and singing from its hard-working ensemble company. Whether expressing utter loss and heartache to unapologetic joy and triumph, this show runs the gamut of emotions to create a satisfying theatergoing experience. Even without its magical trickery and 21st-Century know-how, WICKED is a moving, stirring, and soaring stage endeavor that already seems poised to be a timeless classic decades from now.
Understandably, this musical is such a huge hit that the current 2nd National Tour boasts, not one, but two simultaneously traveling companies performing the exact same show with, of course, two different casts. For the Segerstrom Center's tour stop, Orange County is blessed with a really talented group, headed by Brummel's snarky take on Elphaba and Daradich's winningly-hilarious over-the-top version of Galinda. The pair share some incredible, emotionally superb scenes together, both comedic and dramatic. Singing-wise, while not as jaw-dropping as the amazing divalicious pair of Megan Hilty and Eden Espinosa from the final sit-down company at the Pantages Theatre a few years ago, both actresses do some outstanding work here—especially Brummel, who is tasked with some of the more vocally-challenging, belt-heavy tunes of the night (from "The Wizard and I" to "Defying Gravity" to her extraordinary 11 o'clock number "No Good Deed"). Daradich's overly-emphasized vibrato may turn off some in the opening prologue, but she greatly improves tonally as her songs get more pop-tinged throughout the show.
Other standouts include Perlow, whose undeniably handsome visage as Fiyero perfectly matches his confident, impressive tenor vocals. As jilted Munchkin Boq, Zach Hanna has some great scenes with both the heart-wrenching London (as Nessarose) and the gifted Daradich. A great and, uh, wonderful, surprise is TV's Tom McGowan as the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. While previous W.W.O.O.'s have always seemed a tad more sinister and mean-spirited, McGowan's Wizard feels less like a bubbling-under-the-surface Warlock but, rather, more like a bumbling, genial, accidental genius—a charismatic human caught up in the flash of celebrity and whose evil deeds seem more like "helpful suggestions" from his eventual press secretary, Madame Morrible. Speaking of Morrible, Caskey's portrait of the woman who dubbed Elphaba the "Wicked Witch" is terrific. While this role has benefitted from previous "star castings" in the past, Caskey's take on Morrible returns the role to someone that really acts and sings the part. And as a whole, this ensemble boasts some beautiful harmonies together, punctuated even more by their excellent dancing.
By co-opting Baum's familiar, beloved narrative with an emotionally-layered back-story—reimagining the true identity and source of wickedness in Oz—then injecting it with incredible music and searing messages of tolerance and self-acceptance, WICKED has in it all the proper ingredients of great musical theater. It's a show best served by this medium—the stage (not that I'm wholly opposed to the future planned, but long delayed feature film adaptation).
Even now, in its 2nd National tour, the stage musical remains every bit as jolting, yet has a renewed sense of briskness that time has afforded it. The economical logistics of travel and efficiency no doubt dictated less elaborate set pieces, but these absolutely do not distract from the show's strength nor does it render its magical properties less effective. Personally, I actually like all the subtle new visual revisions this production presents, from the animated gobo projections to the simpler but beautifully-painted backdrops that line the proscenium. The costumes, though, look even more ravishing now than when I first saw the tour.
Overall, WICKED's presentation at the Segerstrom Center is just as awe-inspiring as its initial debut in Orange County several years ago. If they keep this up, this show's touring future will, no doubt, be... unlimited... unlimited... (Sorry, couldn't resist).
All photos by Joan Marcus. From top to bottom: Anne Brummel as Elphaba; Natalie Daradich as Galinda; Tom McGowan as The Wizard; David Nathan Perlow as Fiyero; and Brummel & Daradich.
Performances of the 2nd National Tour of WICKED at The Segerstrom Center of the Arts (formerly the Orange County Performing Arts Center) continue through April 3, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Tickets start at $38.75 and are available online at SCFTA.org, by calling (714) 556-2787, or in person at the Box Office. Please note the best availability for tickets is weeknights and the matinee performance on Thursday, March 10. The 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, March 19 will be sign-language interpreted.
A day-of-performance lottery for a limited number of orchestra seats will be held daily. Each day, 2½ hours prior to show time, people who present themselves at the Segerstrom Center Box Office will have their names placed in a lottery drum and then, 30 minutes later, names will be drawn for a limited number of orchestra seats at $25 each, cash only. This lottery is available only in-person at the Box Office, with a limit of two tickets per person.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For more information, please visit SCFTA.org or WICKED's official site at www.WickedTheMusical.com.