Mantello Slams Chicago Sun-Times Critic over Controversial Review

The touring company of Wicked, which recently began its run in Chicago, has hit up against controversy in the form of a literary duel between Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic Hedy Weiss and director Joe Mantello.

Weiss' offending slap compared events in Wicked to those in Nazi Germany, while Mantello rebuffed that the critic
"mistakenly attributes motivations to the show's creative team that would be offensive if they weren't so laughably and patently untrue."

After panning the construction of the show, Weiss wrote, "Don't, at any cost, forget to mix in a large quantity of political jingoism -- everything from George Orwell (and his warnings about the corruption of speech and thought), to a nod to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And if you can insert a man with a haircut resembling Hitler's, why not? And by the way, are the Munchkins, in their blue-and-white striped uniforms, supposed to be inmates of a concentration camp?"

Mantello did not think so on either account. "It's shocking to learn that Weiss sees Susan Hilferty's Tony Award-winning, blue-and-white striped school uniforms on an exuberant, dancing chorus as a reference to 'inmates of a concentration camp.' Or that the black bowl-cut wig on a bumbling Ozian official seems to her an allusion to a 'haircut resembling Hitler's.' (I, myself, see Moe Howard from 'The Three Stooges,' but hey, maybe I'm a lightweight.) These provocative interpretations are ludicrous and exist solely in the fever dream of Weiss' paranoid imagination. Blithely invoking the (still) shocking iconography of the Holocaust was never the intent of the creative team, and Weiss offers no textual evidence to the contrary. Her excessive, stop-at-nothing refusal to critique the production on its own terms is irresponsible and insults the millions of people who suffered unspeakable indignities and horrors at the hands of the Nazis. She should be ashamed of herself."

Weiss also misunderstood some of the storyline involving the man who would become the Scarecrow. "The cinematic 'Oz' is, of course, little more than a footnote here, with the Scarecrow now revealed to be a lynched black man, the Tin Man a romantically challenged Munchkin, and the Cowardly Lion -- well, that's a long story."

Mantello (whose direction Weiss had found "stylistically chockablock") called this a "preposterous accusation" and wrote, "Once again, she provides no evidence to corroborate this statement. In fact, by her own admission, the tour's staging is a 'clone of the Broadway original' (meaning rope is never used as a restraint and there's not a tree in sight). The only fact that seems to support her theory is that the character, which has been played on Broadway by three different Caucasion (sic) actors, was now being played by an African American...How ironic that in reviewing a show about the vilification of a green girl she should cite an actor's skin color to make such a baseless, illogical point."

Wicked is not the first show to earn Weiss' critical ire. She disliked both The Producers and Spamalot due mostly to jokes involving Jews and/or the Holocaust, and condemned Tony Kushner as a "self-loathing Jew" in her write-up of Caroline, or Change. The playwright responded in a letter: "Caroline" has received many reviews -- some great, some mixed, some negative. None has accused me of me being a Jewish anti-Semite. Ms. Weiss doesn't quote a word from my play to support her slur." Kushner wrote that in an e-mail explanation, Weiss responded "that she decided I hated being Jewish and hated Judaism not because of what I wrote, because of the 'tone' of the production, the 'body language' of the actors, and the fact that Caroline's black characters have, in her opinion, better music."

Regardless of the controversial review, Wicked (which stars Stephanie J. Block, Kendra Kassebaum and Carol Kane) is at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts' Oriental Theatre through June 12th. The theatre is located at 24 W. Randolph St., and tickets can be purchased by calling (312) 902-1400. An open-ended sit-down production of Wicked will begin its run at the same theatre on June 24th; the production will star Ana Gasteyer as Elphaba.

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