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Monday, September 17, 2012

How “Wicked” Is It?


Wicked
Music and Lyrics Stephen Schwartz
Book Winnie Holzman
Director Joe Mantello
Choreographer Wayne Cilento

Review by Kathi E. B. Ellis.
Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved.


Jeanna de Waal as Glinda and Christine Dwyer as
Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked.
Photo courtey of PNC Broadway in Louisville.

I’m probably in a minority, but, Wicked underwhelmed me when I saw it – for my first time – on opening night at the Whitney Hall. I’ve known about it of course; heard “the” song sung in many contexts; seen images of both Elphaba and Glinda; and learned of its origins in the book of the same name by Gregory Maguire which, he avers, is a not-prequel to L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

So why did I feel underwhelmed last Thursday? Certainly, it was a full house, with energy buzzing as folks settled in with cursory glances at the map of Oz on the show curtain, occasional glimpses of the spot operators situated on either side of the proscenium, and the brooding mechanical dragon overseeing all from atop the proscenium arch. The set by the legendary Eugene Lee is impressive, a series of interlocking, oversized moving parts reminiscent of late 19th century science fantasy.  Susan Hilferty’s costumes are bold and quirky, clearly placing us in a parallel quasi-Gothic dystopia.

And, in this touring production, maybe that is where my problem lay. None of the performances were outsized enough to top the production values – with the exception of Madame Morrible (Marilyn Caskey). To be fair to the performers, neither the score nor the book helps them out much. With themes of difference and ostracization, power and corruption, finding one’s truth – really big ideas – it would be powerful to have these ideas articulated in ways more layered than how these characters are constructed. Certainly, the themes from Mr. Baum’s books have been debated for more than a hundred years, with his characters pulled metaphorically into current events across the decades. But there’s not much metaphor in the musical Wicked. The tropes here are leaden and obvious. The inevitable adaptations from novel to musical book may have contributed to a flattening out of more complex themes.

Ms. de Waal’s Glinda is charming and bubbly (literally) and she hits the popular-girl notes with assurance, especially in the scene when she attempts a makeover of Elphaba (‘Popular’). There’s a delightful moment at the beginning of the second act when Glinda, now working with the Wizard (Paul Kreppel) and his press secretary Madame Morrible, greets the Citizens of Oz in a tableau with a wink and a nod to Evita. Christine Dwyer’s Elphaba is fierce and powerful, but is undercut by indeterminate staging, which frequently leaves the performer disconnected from setting and others. She and Dr. Dillamond (Timothy Britten Parker) share one of the show’s few successfully understated moments, “Something Bad,” lifting what could have been a merely stereotypical moment of alienation into a poignant exploration of otherness. Ms. Caskey’s Morrible morphs deliciously from the headmistress who favors the wealthy and attractive, to the manipulative on-message PR aide. Paul Kreppel’s Wizard is disarmingly charming, down to the soft shoe shuffle – you see it coming a mile away, but his charm defuses the predictable moment into a delighted smile. Fiyore (Billy Harrigan Tighe) is appropriately straw-headed; Boq (Michael Wartella) is every teen’s nightmare of a rejected crush; and Nessarose (Catherine Charlebois) is, for me, the least successfully drawn character, moving predictably from cliché to cliché. Dashi’ Mitchell’s Chistery was fascinating to watch; the complete commitment to that character’s physicality frequently drew my attention to this silent character.

The one take-away number from this production is, of course, “Defying Gravity” – and I found myself waiting for it during Act One. And yet, when it arrived, this too was one of the moments in which I was underwhelmed. Ms. De Waal and Ms. Dwyer were committed to the moment. But I was all too aware of the limitations of gravity in the way this is staged. With this title, clearly an audience can anticipate an airborne moment; the broomstick flies on mid-song – great, this is a good start! Equally clearly, anytime a performer is flown safety is paramount. However, the clunkiness of the process of getting Elphaba into the final, impressive moment of the act detracted from the brilliance of Kenneth Posner’s radiant lighting effect, surrounding Ms. Dwyer’s defiant, triumphant face centrally-suspended within the proscenium arch.

On opening night I spent much of the ensemble numbers trying to understand the lyrics in the moment. The balance between the orchestra – which included nine local musicians in addition to the regular ensemble that travels with the production – and the voices was challenging. While understanding the pressures of a touring production, this is one area that can make or break an audience’s response to a performance. The opening night’s audience’s response was overwhelmingly positive, with each number receiving generous applause and a widespread standing ovation at the end of the performance.

As a sometime man of the theatre, one wonders how Mr. Baum would have responded to this theatrical extravaganza, embodying the creation of a parallel world to the one his original books created for children.

Wicked

September 12- 30, 2012

PNC Broadway in Louisville
The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY, 40202
502-589-7777

1 comment:

  1. I think that this is an unbelievably incorrect review of this performance. Dwyer's vocal performance was unlike any I had ever seen in any stage production in my life. (And I am an avid "theater-goer"). She was ubelievable. Glinda as well was fantastically perfect in her role. I am not sure what performance you were watching because the one I saw kept me so captivated that I didn't notice "bad staging" at all. BRAVO!!!

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