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By Jenn McKee
“Wicked” has long been typecast as “a girl thing,” but while watching the newest touring production of the Oz-inspired stage musical, it struck me that the real beating heart of the show is a question that affects us all, particularly now, in this time of soul-searching upheaval: Is goodness about following and reinforcing rules that maintain societal order, or is goodness about staying true to your own personal moral code, no matter what the consequences?
To explore this idea, author Gregory Maguire published the bestselling novel “Wicked” in 1995, upending the Dorothy-centric “Wizard of Oz” narrative we’d all grown up imbibing. As a kind of prequel, “Wicked” tells the story of the shocking birth of green-skinned Elphaba (Laurel Harris), who would grow up to become the Wicked Witch of the West; her lonely childhood as an unloved outcast; and the unlikely friendship that grows between cerebral, outspoken Elphaba and her shallow, relentlessly cheerful schoolmate Glinda the Good Witch (Carrie St. Louis).
The original production of the stage adaptation (2003) – with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman – had the good/bad fortune to feature two of the most high-wattage, powerhouse female stars of Broadway: Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (also known as Adele Dazeem, if you’re John Travolta). They were both terrific (Menzel beat out Chenoweth for that year’s Tony for best lead actress in a musical), and the cast recording featuring their voices has become iconic – to the point where “Wicked” fans have Menzel’s and Chenoweth’s song interpretations permanently glued onto the brain, right down to the phrasing.
So any actor stepping into these hallowed roles has some big ruby red slippers to fill, and they know it. Harris, a U-M musical theater grad (’07), nails Elphaba’s caustic, bone-dry humor with her line delivery, to great comic effect, and she also conveys the character’s passion, both in word and by way of powerhouse vocals. As the third point of Harris’ and St. Louis’s love triangle, Ashley Parker Angel – playing spoiled, rich bad boy Fiyero – is every inch the golden child (with fittingly golden pipes), and makes Fiyero’s evolution feel natural. And in a featured role as The Wizard, former “That’s Incredible” co-host John Davidson seems wholly at home on stage.
But on opening night, St. Louis outshone them all, selling the hilarious number “Popular” with such outlandishly goofy, winning charm that although Glinda is, ironically, the less glamorous of the two lead roles – being the ditzy, shallow beacon of the status quo, while Elphaba’s the fierce, smart, principled rebel – St. Louis had the crowd in the palm of her delicate, well-moisturized little hand. So when Glinda finally realizes that she’ll never win Fiyero’s heart, St. Louis’ reprise of “I’m Not that Girl” cuts you to the quick, while “For Good” has the feel of two true equals joining forces one last time.
Those who have seen the show before are now familiar with set designer Eugene Lee clock face- and gear-themed backdrops, lit by Kenneth Posner in such a way as to clearly delineate the contrast the between bright, cheerful Emerald City and the murderous mob hunting down Elphaba. Susan Hilferty’s fanciful, often buoyant costumes are always fun to study, and Chic Silber’s special effects go a long way toward completing our transport to this darkly magical, foreign-but-familiar land.
Of course, even loyal fans of a show may find that its original magic has diminished a bit over time. Familiarity, in this instance, doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but rather expectations that are really tough to satisfy each time.
That having been said, “Wicked” remains a good show with a compelling story, terrific songs and timeless themes. So while the elements that made “Wicked” seem so fresh and exciting a decade ago (an emphasis on women’s friendships, a surprising twist on a pop culture staple like “The Wizard of Oz,” etc.) may no longer hit you like a Kansas cyclone, it’s still an adventure worth having.
Broadway in Detroit
at Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway St., Detroit
Wicked runs Dec. 10 – Jan. 4, 2015
Monday through Saturday evening performances at 8 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Sunday evening performances at 7:30 p.m.
Matinees at 1 p.m. on Dec. 23, 30 & 31
No performances on Dec. 15, 24 & 25 and Jan. 1
Sunday, Dec. 14 at 7:30 p.m. is a special open captioned performance.