BWW Review: WICKED Enchants Crowds at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati
With the famous and fabulous Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, the Aronoff continues to bring the most entertaining blockbusters to Cincinnati. The crowd on Thursday, September 14th, was filled with parents and their children bubbling over with excitement. Super-fans were in attendance wearing costumes and Wicked merchandise was flying off the shelves. Touted in advertisements as the best musical of the decade (albeit the last decade, this is its 2nd National tour and 14th year), Wicked continues to draw huge crowds. Nominated for several Tonys in 2004, it won for best actress (Idina Menzel) and best costume and scenic design. It also boosted the careers of its stars, Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, who originated the roles of Elphaba and Glinda respectively.
Based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Wicked tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch before Dorothy and Toto breeze into town. The witches meet at school and slowly and reluctantly become best friends. Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) is a gifted student but a social outcast. Glinda is her polar opposite. Fiyero is the handsome and initially shallow prince who captures the hearts of both women. Events are set into motion when Elphaba is invited to meet the Wizard of Oz and she and Glinda take the trip to The Emerald City. Dorothy and Toto blow into town shortly thereafter, and the events of Frank L. Baum's classic are seen from an entirely different angle.
More than a decade before we were hearing the word "privilege" in any significant way, this tale shows how skin color, not being covered in fur (this makes sense when you see it), wealth, height, and, um, blondness, can give you a free pass. Even though Glinda "the Good Witch" had a way more confused and treacherous moral compass than Elphaba ever had, she was loved and admired without having to do anything but be her beautiful, rich self. This is a story about appearances and prejudice. About spin and fake news. About creating a unity among the majority by finding an "other" to blame and making that other pay by systematically stripping them of their rights and freedoms. It's about telling lies to hold on to power.
The "great and terrible" Wizard of Oz, played by Tom McGowan (Frasier fans will recognize him instantly), sings to Elphaba, "I'm a sentimental man who always longed to be a father..." But in truth, he's a coward and a cheat and possibly a date rapist engaging in relations after he gets women drunk on some mysterious green juice. But the masses can't see past his powerful and successful façade, and they worship him. He could probably shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue, and people would still love him.
Meanwhile, Elphaba's intentions are twisted and misunderstood to the point where she has to hide away in the woods forever. (Maybe some lucky fan will come across her and take a selfie!) Her reputation has been sullied beyond remedy, and she will be hated and misunderstood until minds slowly open over generations, and history books are revised to tell a different story--like The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. This tells the story of how women can be shunned, outcast, and ignored for looking different--sometimes treated as if they are purposely trying to offend--unless their deformity happens to be "tragically beautiful." And heaven forbid they add abilities on top of everything. Then a woman becomes something to be feared, reviled, despised.
As Elphaba, stand-in Chelsea Emma Franko did an admirable job. She lagged a bit as far as making the iconic part her own (unlike Ginna Claire Mason, as Glinda, who seemed comfortable treading that line between "Am I being too Kristin Chenoweth, or am I finding my own Glinda?") But Franko had the full support of the audience from the moment she entered. She was working hard and she pulled us along to the finish. Mason was absolutely at ease and comically charming in the role of Glinda. With excellent timing and physicality, she seemed made for this role. Jon Robert Hall as Fiyero had a rough start (his dancing wasn't on par,) but as the character of Fiyero became more sincere, so did his performance. That, combined with his ridiculous height and handsomeness, made him perfect for the role.
Fourteen years after it premiered on Broadway, Wicked was shockingly timely and far more substantive that I was expecting. It was bizarre how much it seemed to reflect certain current events. Honestly, the music is the only thing that seems to have aged; it certainly sounds like it's from "that time." But, we all love the musicals we grew up with. I am devoted to Les Miz, but I know others (like snarky reporters from CNN), who would rather listen to nails being scratched across a blackboard.
I'm not surprised that Winnie Holzman was nominated for a Tony for her clever and subversive book. Perhaps she was partially nominated for her mastery of editing as the story never goes into great detail, but still seems to tell just enough. It seems spare or rushed and yet you become invested, you grow to love the characters, and you care about what happens in the end. Of course, having The Wizard of Oz osmosed into everyone's consciousness helps by making unnecessary the clunky exposition and backstory.
But, ultimately, I was most enchanted by how purely Wicked tells a woman's story. So many stories with female leads (even those written by women) still have the woman reacting to things around her while the men execute all of the actual action. (Just because she has the most lines doesn't mean it's the woman's story.) But, Elphaba takes matters into her own hands and drives this plot, and she does this in a purely feminine way. She doesn't have to act like or have the strength of a man to be powerful. She is a witch. There is nothing more female than that, and sure, people want to hate witches, but Wicked turns all of that on its head. She owns the word. She uses their fear against them, and she saves herself, those she loves, and possibly all of Oz in the process. And this is from fourteen years ago! It doesn't seem possible in today's climate that this story could have snuck through and been so successful. One thing is for sure, it was resonating with the dozens of little girls (and boys, and big girls and boys) in the Aronoff's audience, and I wholeheartedly approve of Elphaba as role model to anyone who feels green. Because as a famous frog once said... "It ain't easy....."
WICKED plays at The Aronoff Center: 650 Walnut St. Cincinnati, OH 45202 through October 15th. Get your tickets here!
Photo from Broadway.org website.