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BWW Reviews: Spellbinding WICKED Brings Theatrical Magic to Providence

Alison Luff. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Everything you think you know about the merry old Land of Oz is about to change. Wicked, now playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center, revisits the yellow brick road from Munchkinland to the Emerald City and presents a heart-touching, socially- and politically-minded new vision of Oz's most familiar stories and characters along the way.

The show opens with the citizens of Oz celebrating the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West. Their festivities go on joyously until one Ozian boldly asks Glinda the Good Witch, "Is it true you were her friend?" From there, the story moves back in time to when the women were fellow students, first meeting as freshmen at Shiz University. This relationship, one that starts out with "unadulterated loathing," gradually develops into the defining friendship of a lifetime.

Alison Luff stars as Elphaba, the green-skinned girl with the magic touch. Though Elphaba's "verdigris" makes her the victim of prejudice and bullying wherever she goes, her book smarts, strong views, and burgeoning magical talents quickly bring her to the head of her class - and to the attention of the Wonderful Wizard himself.

Luff is dynamic as Elphaba, giving a multifaceted and truly memorable performance. Luff plays to all of Elphaba's core strengths, but she also allows for needed moments of vulnerability to create a fully-realized character. In addition, Luff's talents are well suited to the musical demands of the role, both in her consistent characterization and in an impressive vocal presentation. She belts out "Defying Gravity" and "No Good Deed" with enthusiasm and fire, brings biting sass and dry humor to "What is This Feeling?", and layers "As Long as You're Mine" with a perfect balance of wonderment and passion.

West End sweetheart Gina Beck makes her United States debut on tour as Glinda, the achingly perky leader of Shiz's popular set. Beck is a comedic powerhouse as the fashionable, if flighty, college-aged Miss Galinda Upland. She plays "blonde" brilliantly, from Glinda's spoiled and sheltered beginnings to her later truce with and giddy embrace of her studious, green roommate.

Beck's image-obsessed rendition of "Popular" is a showstopper. She is an inexhaustible whirlwind in pink as she flits from squealing over Glinda's massive shoe collection to fussing over Elphaba's hairstyle and wardrobe. Glinda never loses her zest or animation, but she does mature as the production progresses, and scene by scene, Beck builds the depth of her character through incidents of loss, betrayal, and heartbreak.

With the relationship between these two very different women at the crux of the storytelling, Luff and Beck are at their strongest when they take the stage together. Musical numbers "What is This Feeling?" and "Popular" give both ladies space to play with the production's most humorous elements, with Luff acting as bemused straight man to Beck's effervescent buoyancy. Non-musical scenes - such as the witches' confrontation following Dorothy's arrival in Oz - also provide great verbal and physical comedy, even as they frame more serious elements of the narrative. But some of Luff and Beck's most memorable scenes are those that go straight to the heart, such as Elphaba and Glinda's hasty mid-song parting during "Defying Gravity" and their deeply-poignant, friendship-encompassing duet "For Good."

The company boasts a slew of talent - singers, dancers, and actors - from the ensemble to leading roles. Alison Fraser brings an aristocratic air to the duplicitous Madame Morrible, and her raspy-voiced approach to the Shiz headmistress well suits the character. Curt Hansen paints errant prince Fiyero with a wonderfully laid-back and unconcerned veneer, one which chips away layer by layer as the story takes a more serious turn. Jesse JP Johnson gradually toughens Boq's sweet and gullible munchkin character after one kindly-meant falsehood leads to months and years of bitterness and hardship.

Other standout performers include John Davidson, who presents the great and powerful Oz as a consummate showman, sincere in his insincerity, and later, convincingly broken when facing the all-too-personal consequences of years of his political machinations. Tom Flynn likewise makes the most of brief scenes to show Doctor Dillamond as a warm and devoted teacher, and he gives great urgency to the goat-professor's concerns about mounting state discrimination against Oz's talking animals.

Stephen Schwartz's beautifully-scored music comes through strongly throughout the production. Little touches - like the inclusion of a lighthearted banjo during the Wizard's soft-shoe number "Wonderful" - display Schwartz's fine attention to detail and nuances of character. The tour travels with its own conductor and a five-person orchestra, and nine Rhode Island-based musicians join them in the pit for Wicked's stop in Providence, but the sound they create is so rich that the ensemble seems much larger.

Wicked celebrated its tenth anniversary on Broadway in October 2013 and has been a high-flying success in cities across the country and around the world during the last decade. While the show's initial appeal is grounded in audience familiarity with L. Frank Baum's Oz books and the beloved 1939 Wizard of Oz film, the execution and melding of each of the musical production's elements - Schwartz's brilliant score and clever lyrics; Winnie Holzman's skillful stage adaptation of the novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire; Susan Hilferty's gloriously grand and quirky costumes; and Eugene Lee's remarkable set pieces (including Glinda's flying bubble, the magnificent Oz-head puppet, and "Ozwald," the massive steampunk dragon-clock that presides over the story from his lofty perch on the proscenium) - have made Wicked a modern classic in its own right.

Wicked plays the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, January 12, 2014. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $53-$153 and discounted rates are available for groups of 20 or more. Day-of-performance lottery seats will be offered as well; please visit the PPAC website or call the box office for more details on lottery participation.


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