Wicked Brings Down the House at Orpheum
I used to believe the cyclone that dropped Dorothy's house on Munchinkland was a random disaster. Thanks to novelist Gregory Maguire, I now know better. Last night, when Director Joe Mantello brought this splendidly-imagined backstory to life on stage at the Orpheum, it too brought down the house.
This marvelous revisionist account of L. Frank Baum's beloved children's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was adapted for stage by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (text). It first opened on Broadway in 2003. Sans sap, snark or pandering to angst, this richly-textured tale is a storybook odyssey for kids, a love story for romantics and a social allegory for contemplative adults. It's also Broadway's biggest blockbuster to date.
Currently, nine productions of Wicked are gracing stages worldwide. Two companies are on tour in North America: The Emerald City Tour and The Munchkinland Tour. Except for the casts, those two productions are purportedly identical.
The Munchkinland Tour came to Memphis and its actors are out of this world. Despite their supernatural powers and fantastical circumstances, these inhabitants of Oz act and react like real people, not characters. Their emotional connections seem intense and genuine. While so many big musicals feel broad-brushed and slick, this production feels intimate and intricate. Its impact lies in nuance; its memorability in moments. Wonderful voices and great chemistry across the board.
Elphaba (Jennifer DiNoia) (This is reportedly her 8th year in the role.) inhabits her part with the perfect balance of heart and edge. She keeps us spellbound and rooting for her in every scene. Glinda (Hayley Podschun) resembles a pretty porcelain doll, making her physical comedy seem all the more outlandish. The audience roared at her silliness, though I thought it was a tad too heavy on the shitck. Her character arc and dramatic scenes, however are brilliant. The classically handsome Fiyero (Matt Shingledecker) is an intriguing enigma of strength and vulnerability. He owns the role. Beautiful Nessarose (Emily Behny) had me hook line and sinker in her tragic transition from sweet to bitter.
The only time I felt one step removed was during the first half of "Dancing Through Life." Somehow that choreography--particularly Fiyero's-- came off as staged movement instead of a heartfelt physical expression of the song. I suspect throughout those measures, less would be more.
In sharp contrast to the characters mentioned above were Madame Morrible (Kathy Fitzgerald) and The Wizard (Walker Jones). Both of these actors have impressive Shakespearian backgrounds and gave more presentational performances. This juxtaposition worked beautifully since they were embodiments of the establishment.
Other notables were: Boq, the munchkin (Lee Slobotikin) as the sympathetic underdog and Doctor Dillamond (John Hillner) as the erudite, yet persecuted, scapegoat. In a class of his own, was Chistery (Dashi' Mitchell) the acrobatic--and very convincing--lead flying monkey. These principle players were beautifully supported by a large, diverse and energetic ensemble--as opposed to a "cookie cutter" chorus.
Thanks to set design by Eugene Lee, Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Kenneth Posner and sound design by Tony Meola this remarkable odyssey has a fascinating steampunk aesthetic. (Apropos given that The Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900.) Since the 1939 MGM Film is so iconic, it's exciting to see the land beyond the rainbow freshly imagined.
Kudos to Stephen Oremus, the show's musical director, Wayne Cilento for musical staging, orchestrations by William David Brohn, and dance arrangements by James Lynn Abbott. Added attraction: the touring orchestra is joined by ten of our finest local musicians: Gary Topper, Nathan Nix, Keith Karabell, David Spencer, Robert Gilbert, William A. Flores, Jr., Debbie Heath, Gary Gooch, Sam Shoup, and Edward Murray.
If you've seen Wicked before, you'll appreciate fresh new things in this production. If you've never seen it, now's your chance to find out what all the fuss is about.
WICKED plays at the Orpheum Theatre through February 16, 2014