Review: WICKED at the Peace Center

National Tour Review in Greenville, SC

By: Aug. 17, 2023
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Review: WICKED at the Peace Center
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Looking back to nostalgic franchises can be a funny thing. Sometimes it makes you wince, and sometimes you are blissfuly transported. For me, as with many Broadway fans, Wicked has been one of those since it first came to the Peace Center Concert Hall in Greenville. That one time I saw it was years ago, though, so I had no way of knowing how my "first love"--the show that introduced me to Broadway--would hold up as it approaches it's 20th anniversary. I am glad to report that Wicked is doing just fine. If you're okay with giving yourself over to a bit of magic and spectacle for two hours, Wicked remains can't-miss theater.

First and foremost, the supreme production values of Wicked are still astounding by today's standards. Kenneth Posner's lighting in particular made the Act 1 finale "Defying Gravity" feel absolutely transcendent. I didn't expect it to truly look like the actress was flying and this, combined with Stephen Schwartz's exhilarating music, made the number genuinely emotional to watch. Eugene Lee's Tony-winning set was also a highlight. The visual references to The Wizard of Oz's original illustrations remain delightful, especially to the first-time viewer accompanying me who knew Oz just about entirely from that book. I hadn't known what I was in for when I advised her before the show to, "just imagine how impressive it was twenty years ago." Imagine, indeed.

There's hardly anything left to say that hasn't already been said about the work done by Schwartz and scriptwriter Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life). Schwartz was, after all, a legendary composer before this show (Pippin,  PocahontasPrince of Egypt, ...shall I go on?). The arrangements by Hamilton's Alex Lacamoire of this "popular" score also sounded even better live under conductor Evan Roider. Additionally, the themes of Holzman's book remain engaging as well. Sure, the dialogue in Act 1 occasionally flirts with afterschool-special directness, but you never feel like it's taking itself too seriously. And it doesn't hurt that this fairytale's themes have a new relevance in our current era of media manipulation, from book bans in schools to AI in entertainment.

The titular green witch has generally been the star in both theory and in practice, yet Celia Hottenstein, joining from the Broadway company as Glinda the Good, gives a performance not to be overlooked. Some Glindas are known to go over-the-top comedically, but Ms. Hottenstein finds a perfect balance. What truly makes her performance special, though, is the way she clearly understands how to use the music as a storytelling device, incorporating her high soprano notes in book scenes to underscore Glinda's feelings, especially as those become increasingly conflicted later on. It was an understated yet expert performance. 

As the second, but ostensibly more important of the two witches, former ensemble member Olivia Valli impresses with her vocal talents. In Elphaba's solos, her voice resonated with both power and clarity, showing no signs of slowing down later on, either. Ms. Valli also demonstrated in her acting a deft transition from being Elphaba the outcast schoolgirl in the first act to Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West in the second. The more fraught dramatic scenes allowed her to shine as an actress. Elphaba has a reputation as arguably Broadway's most demanding role, especially vocally, and Ms. Valli was more than up to the task.

The rest of the cast did great as well. Newcomer Christian Thompson as the affable prince Fiyero; longtime Wicked alum Kathy Fitzgerald as the slippery power-player Madame Morrible; Kyle McArthur as Munchkin nice-guy Boq; and Tara Kostmayer as Elphaba's coddled sister Nessarose, the eventual victim, of course, of a certain tornado. They way these characters all tie in to the story of that "little farm girl" each makes for a satisfying payoff. The ensemble members were particularly good. They surpassed the "background" nature of their roles, masterfully drawing the eye to Wayne Cilento's appropriately idiosyncratic choreography. That mustn't be too hard though, when wearing costumer Susan Hilferty's extravagant Tony-winning creations.

As the show's original Wizard (among his other claims to legend status) Joel Grey once said, Wicked, "is like a thinking man's Disney movie." Then and now, it certainly has a very similar kind of fantastical touch. That must be the reason Wicked has endured so long with audiences, despite a lack of unanimity in critical opinions back in 2003: because it has that certain spirited effervescence that enthralls both the young and young at heart. I must have somewhat overestimated how much my heart's aged since I last went to Oz.

Wicked continues at the Peace Center through this Sunday, August 20th. Tickets are available at peacecenter.org.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus




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