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BWW Reviews: WICKED at the Benedum Center

The arrival of the Wicked National Tour in any town has become the twenty-first century equivalent of the circus coming to town. Fans, tourists, die-hards and casual theatre lovers flock to buy tickets, pick up souveniers, laugh, cry, cheer and applaud uproriously for a musica that, only ten years old, has already established itself as a modern classic. As this Equity tour comes to Pittsbugh and makes its home at the Benedum center for the next few weeks, I made my first visit to the show since seeing the now-legendary original cast nearly ten years ago. To paraphrase Madam Morrible, I expected to be disappointed... but I was not. The combination of a stunningly talented cast, Joe Mantello's fast-moving and stylish direction, Eugene Lee's outrageous steampunk sets, and Stephen Schwartz's iconic score guarantees that audiences will get their money's worth at this witch hunt.

I can still vividly remember being a precocious and somewhat pretentious fourteen-year-old, outraged at what the Broadway musical Wicked had done to the source material, Gregory Maguire's tricky and Kubrick-esque Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Where was the darkness, the sex and violence, the political intrigue? In Maguire's Oz, androids carry out assassinations, the green girl's biological gender is left deliberately vague, and it certainly isn't dancing that goes on at the Ozdust Ballroom (you don't want to know, trust me). Over the years, however, Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics and Winnie Holzman's book gradually won me over, and by the time the musical hit its five-year anniversary, I had learned to love it- not for what it could have been, but for what it was. Wicked may not be the totalitarian nightmare world of the novel, but as a family-friendly, decidedly post-Disney-Renaissance musical, it succeeds with flying colors.

The plot of Wicked is probably familiar by now to most BWW readers, but just in case, the musical tells the story of Elphaba Thropp (Alison Luff), the "unnaturally green" daughter of one of Oz's political officials, and her unlikely friendship and rivalry with Galinda Upland (Gina Beck), a beautiful rich girl with more charm than brains and more ambition than talent for magic or academics. When Elphaba shows an unexpected talent for magic, and Galinda shows an unexpectedly kind side, they both attract the notice of Shiz University headmistress Madam Morrible (the very funny Alison Fraser), and both quickly become embroiled in political intrigue with the Wizard of Oz himself (John Davidson). Simultaneously, they find themselves in a love triangle with rich, affable slacker Fiyero (Curt Hansen), whose growing interest in Elphaba and her political activism makes him question his own disaffectedness.

Performers in a famous musical like Wicked, which launched Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth from Broadway regulars to stars of stage, film and television, have big shoes to fill. The fact that the show has only one English-language recording, and a best-seller at that, means that the leads in any given performance are competing with the well-ingrained memories of the original cast's idiosyncratic voices and unique comic and dramatic timing. Happily, the current touring cast gave incredible performances across the board, enough to make me forget my memories of actors past as I watched. As Elphaba, the heroine/antiheroine of the play, Alison Luff brings a vulnerability, quirkiness and sense of humor to the role that made the young witch, who can sometimes come off as cold or standoffish, genuinely lovable. Rather than relying on stadium-sized powerhouse vocals and jaw-dropping riffs, Luff sings and acts her way genuinely through the songs, making the famous last 90 seconds of "Defying Gravity," as Elphaba ascends to the skies over the soldiers who chase her a moment not just of triumph and empowerment, but of fear and bittersweetness. Rather than snarl out the phrase, "and nobody in all of Oz, no Wizard that there is or was," as Idina Menzel famously did, Luff gasps the words out as if fighting the urge to cry, or to scream.

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