BWW Review: WICKED at Shea's Buffalo Theatre
It's hard to know if in 1900 L. Frank Baum ever imagined there would be an afterlife to his children's book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," but in 1939 MGM capitalized on book's wide appeal and their film version, "The Wizard of Oz," has became a staple in every child's movie experience. Flash forward 64 years to what can best be described as a prequel to Dorothy's famous journey, and you have the megamusical WICKED, which has become almost as popular as the MGM film.
With Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics along with the book by Winnie Holzman, WICKED took Broadway by storm in 2003, and has been playing to sold out houses ever since. The national tour, which is a carbon copy of the slick Broadway version directed by Joe Mantello, has played Buffalo before, and is settled in again for a 3 week run. Judged by the enthusiastic crowd on Friday night, WICKED fans and groupies are thrilled to see their favorite show back on the Shea's stage. Schwartz is well known as the composer of Godspell and Pippin (seen last year at Shea's), but his score to WICKED may well be his most successful. Full of pop sounding orchestrations with electronic keyboards and heavy percussive elements, Schwartz has mastered weaving traditional show tunes with contemporary rock based riffs.
WICKED tells how Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West (Elphaba) first meet, the genesis of their unlikely friendship, which blossoms but is repeatedly tried through a series of Ozian mishaps.
Headlining this spectacularly realized production is Jessica Vosk as Elphaba, the green skinned witch that won Idina Menzel the TONY Award for best actress. She inhabits the role fully while imbuing it with her own idsiosyncratic nuances. Faced with sometime near impossible vocal writing, Ms. Vosk's rock solid voice can be pared down to a whisper and then modulate to full on belting when required. Her Act One closer "Defying Gravity" was spine tingling, as she soared above the stage selling this power ballad, the type that Schwartz writes so well.
Glinda, who starts life with the name of Galinda, is as contrary to Elphaba as possible. Tall, perky, blonde, and full of malaprops of her own devising, Ginna Claire Mason was a delight as the Good Witch. Her bubbly character was matched by her impeccable comedic timing. On her first entrance in her descending flying bubble it was unclear whether the high lying vocal demands were in her reach. Her thin upper register was often inaudible, but as the evening progressed and the highest soprano requirements of the role were past her, she settled in and had the audience captivated. She shone in the comedic number "Popular" where she gleefully decides the green Elphaba needs a make over. The physical and emotional differences of the two witches plays off the good and evil (or wicked) nature that has been bestowed upon each of them. With song titles like "Thank Goodness," "No Good Deed," and "For Good" it's not hard comprehend the the conflict that ensues.
The talented Isabel Keating as school Headmistress Madame Morrible is as quirky and odd as the other Oz citizens. Conveniently, her specialty is weather spells and incantations, so we learn the origins of that famous twister that was stirred up in Kansas. Ms. Keating's slight figure played gleefully against her large costumes and wigs, making her a fitting physical caricature to match her peculiar Ozian vocabulary. Broadway veteran Fred Applegate was perfect as the Wonderful Wizard himself, full of imposing bluster mixed with a bit of song and dance man. The darkest side of the WICKED story is revealed with these two covorting characters.
Jeremy Woodard plays Fiyero, the playboy student who is the love interest of both of the witches. His swagger and good looks fit the bill perfectly, if sometime his voice was not fully heard. His poignant duet with Elphaba "As Long As You're Mine" was a highlight, showing how his love was blind to her physical appearance. In a twist of fate, his appearance becomes greatly altered and the relationship becomes all the more endearing.
Ms. Holzman's book, based upon the novel by Gregory Maguire, is fascinating in fleshing out the backstory of where our favorite characters of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow came from. The fantastic costumes by Susan Hilferty are an amalgamation of references to those seen in "The Wizard of Oz" film with modern edges, reminiscent of Dr. Seuss characters. The intricately detailed sets by Eugene Lee are fascinating to watch in action, often with complex points of perspective. They are especially complemented by the great lighting effects of Kenneth Posner. In the one brief scene with which everyone is familiar , we visualize the famous melting of the Wicked Witch through a scrim, which makes it eerily realistic.
The large ensemble, as citizens of Oz, munchkins, and flying monkeys, is multitalented and used frequently throughout the production. In addition, the flying effects for the monkeys is fun to watch, especially as we learn the origin of why the are winged.
The heart of WICKED lies in the development of it's two main characters. Their journey from schoolmates to adults ultimately tugs at the heart strings, seeing that both Glinda and Elphaba are intrinsically good. It is through the evils thrust upon Elphaba, mostly due to her physical appearance, that she is led down a path of outward wickedness. The transformation from awkward ugly ducking to a powerful and evil hag allowed Ms. Volk to lend some levity to the darkness of her character. The moment she first lets out a wicked witch's cackling laugh had the audience hooked. And by the finale you are rooting for the two to be able to maintain the strong friendship that have forged.
WICKED plays at Shea's Buffalo Theatre through June 4, 2017. Contact sheas.org for more info.