PPAC's "Wicked": Green with Envy

Jessica Vosk in "Wicked"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

There is much that is green about Wicked, the musical: one witch, a lot of peer jealousy, and a whole lot of money. Billed as “the untold story of the Witches of Oz”, the musicalization of the popular novel by local author Gregory Maguire has grossed, since its Broadway opening thirteen years ago (on 10/30/03), $1,044,603,475 (yes, that's over one billion). Thus a plot synopsis would hardly seem necessary. Everyone is familiar with the original film The Wizard of Oz, and the books by L. Frank Baum, and most theatergoers have presumably already seen this story of brains, heart and courage and are eagerly looking forward to a revisit to the Kingdom. They won't be disappointed.

Just as a brief refresher, the show is really the back story of Elphaba (Jessica Vosk), alias (in Baum's original books) the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire in his breakthrough novel took the Dorothy story and pretty much upended our expectations. The Book by Winnie Holzman takes the plot-heavy musical in even more foreign territory, wherein Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper), “the good witch”, is the flawed narcissist (with the delightful song “Popular”) whose status increases as that of Elphaba declines at Shiz School, which culminates in the showstopping climax to Act I, the chill-inducing “Defying Gravity”). Characters who are not found in the original The Wizard of Oz novel (but some of whom are in Baum's dozens of sequels) are Headmistress Madame Morrible (Wendy Worthington), the sole remaining Animal on the faculty, Dr. Dillamond (Chad Jennings), Elphaba's younger sister Nessarose (Kristen Martin), the prince Fiyero who becomes the Scarecrow (Anthony Festa), and Boq who becomes the Tin Man (Sam Seferian). And of course there's The Wizard himself (Stuart Zagnit) who confesses he's not all powerful after all. How all this, and more, transpires requires that attention be paid, for all's well that ends well. Except for that unfortunate landing of a house on top of Nessarose brought on by this girl named Dorothy....

The Book, its weakest element by far, is lacking in subtlety, and the jokes are labored and unfunny (“the artichoke is steamed”, “so happy I could melt”, “innuendo, outuendo”, “the goat is on the lam”, “twister of fate”, and the visual of Galinda's Evita-like hand posture at the beginning of Act II). At the same time, there are some wise subtexts, such as finding a common enemy in order to control the people (sound familiar?) and telling “lies they wanted to hear”, that have resonance today. Schwartz' lyrics, however, save the day (such as a reference to Elphaba's “verdegris”) and his score is often glorious. Standouts include such memorable songs as “Dancing through Life”, “Defying Gravity” and “For Good”, perhaps the most moving and powerful number in the show, the eleven o'clock number unforgettably sung by Vosk and Cooper:

Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good...
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you...
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have rewritten mine...
Because I knew you, because I knew you
I have been changed
For good

Much depends on the abilities of its cast, and most delivered, if often too broadly, but, as the Wizard himself puts it, “you have to give people what they want”. Vosk avoids the burlesque style and creates the sole nuanced role on the stage. The original Direction was by Joe Montello, with Musical Staging by Wayne Cilento (fondly remembered from the original cast of Chorus Line) ; with Scenic Design by Eugene Lee, Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner, Sound Design by Tony Meola and Projection Design by Elaine J. McCarthy, this version is in fine technical shape.

The musical's popularity, due in large part to its message of empowerment for young women and girls, is undeniable. With a solid score and despite its sometimes incomprehensible plot(s), it's no wonder that it's been such a hit. In the midst of our current electoral blues (and reds), perhaps it's time again to embrace the green in all of us and follow that yellow brick road.

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