Something sinister is afoot in the Land of Oz – but not at the Detroit Opera House, where those lucky enough to secure a ticket to “Wicked” are treated to a thoroughly bewitching night at the theater.
The smash-hit, Tony Award-winning musical is based on the 1995 novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire. Somewhat of a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Maguire’s popular book explores the socio-political world of Oz prior to Dorothy Gale’s unexpected and deadly visit. Winnie Holzman’s stage adaptation, however, wisely condenses the heavily detailed plot (and takes many liberties with it) and focuses the story on the surprising relationship between two women whose fates are known worldwide thanks primarily to a certain 1939 movie starring Judy Garland: Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Galinda (Glinda the Good).
Tossed together as uneasy roommates at Shiz University, the all-green and friendless Elphaba and shallow, popular and social-climbing Galinda eventually see beyond their exteriors and forge a close friendship. But an eagerly anticipated visit with the mysterious Wizard of Oz seemingly shatters their relationship forever when dark secrets are revealed – and Elphaba rebels. (The fact that both love handsome, party-boy Fiyero doesn’t help matters any.)
Their eventual fates are well known, of course. Or so you think!
Despite the fact that Holzman’s ending contradicts both Maguire’s conclusion and Baum’s many sequels to the Oz story – and audiences might scratch their heads wondering when Nessarose, Elphaba’s tragically beautiful sister, became the Wicked Witch of the East – his otherwise engaging story is beautifully depicted by director Joe Mantello, a talented cast and a superb team of technical and backstage wizards.
Mantello’s staging is slick, quick and never dull. The entire production runs like clockwork; so much so, that the show’s two-and-three-quarter hours fly by in seemingly less than three clicks of the ruby slippers.
Much of that is the result of the seamless integration of colorful and impressive sets (by Eugene Lee), costumes (Susan Hilferty), lights (Kenneth Posner) and projections (Elaine J. McCarthy) to help tell the story – and a backstage crew that expertly and efficiently moves everything along. (In particular, you’ll be amazed by the rain sequence and the Act One finale, Elphaba’s “Defying Gravity.”)
But most memorable are the actresses who bring the two witches to life – and in particular, their impressive singing voices.
Donna Vivino finds all the right emotions as she takes to the air as Elphaba and sings “Defying Gravity.” And later, in “No Good Deed,” you can’t help but empathize as she comes to accept the role she’s destined to play in Oz.
Katie Rose Clarke excels as the popular, perky and self-absorbed Galinda. Among her standout numbers is “Popular,” in which she excitedly bounces around the college bedroom she shares with Elphaba and describes her makeover plans for her new emerald-hued friend.
Individually, both are excellent. But what’s occasionally missing is a palpable spark between the two that makes their eventual separation even more tragic, and the ending more satisfying. (I suspect that may change with time, however, as Vivino only joined the cast Nov. 5.)
Supporting and ensemble actors are all well-suited to their roles.
If there’s a minor letdown to the “Wicked” experience, it’s this: The lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz are smart, but mostly forgettable.
Broadway in Detroit at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. Through Jan. 4. Tickets: $33-$93. For information: 313-872-1000 or http://www.broadwayindetroit.com