The uber popular prequel of the Wizard of Oz journeys to a past never-ever-land to show us Oz, pre-Dorothy and -Toto, recounting the history of witches Glinda and Elphaba. It's adapted from a novel in the trilogy, The Wicked Years, by Gregory Maguire; inspired by L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and, of course, the 1939 film.
The sum of its parts, Wicked enchants with great performances and a stellar production. The show's score gives us music by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) and book by Winnie Holzman. Their tunes bowl audiences over with shirt-ripping emotion — some inspirational, others with lyrics you’d swear you’d read in a Hallmark Card.
The live orchestra on the night we attended seemed under-utilized for a good three quarters of the show. Several of the show canned-sounding faux-pop instrumentations did not do the accomplished musicians justice, but a few classics ultimately redeem with timeless appeal — such as “No One Mourns the Wicked,” "For Good" and “Defying Gravity.”
Thankfully, the show's tech tricks, ominous set, costumes and production pieces make up for the corny pitfalls. A menacing iron dragon lurks over the proscenium. A clever clock-piece-motif decorates the backdrop, and monkey men fly to and fro through a woozy fog, and green and black lights — all fantastically fantastical — as so are the choreography, chorus and solos performances. Apart from disappointments in the dialogue and music, I can’t trot out the cliché “Broadway-caliber” enough while talking about Wicked.
The yin-yang relationship between Glinda (Jeanna De Waal) and the Wicked Witch of the West, aka Elphaba (Christine Dwyer) — frienemies turned BFFs turned kinda-sorta-frienemies again — is Wicked’s most spellbinding centerpiece.
De Waal and Dwyer grab our attention with a chokehold, endearing us with a knack for natural moments and believable rapport. De Waal's Glinda, on the night of our show, needed a few scenes to settle into her role but later triumphed — and both actors clinched it with their cathartic belt-outs. It's a treat to watch how deftly both transcend the limitations of their scripted characters.
As far as the lead women go, Wicked is hell bent on stereotypes — the cute, popular blonde who whips her hair and gets her way and the frumpy smart friend a la Janeane Garofalo or, more recently, Alex on Modern Family; she's the nerd on the rise brimming with sarcastic brio. A closer inspection reveals that Elpheba and Glinda are a cheeky nod to modern female archetypes.
And excuse me for digressing, but It’s tough for me as a child of the '70s, who grew up with craggy Cora (Margaret Hamilton) from the Maxwell House coffee commercials burned into my brain as the Wicked Witch of the West, and all these years later, try to wrap my brain around the revelation that Elpheba is indie-hipster hot, a green Winona Ryder, if you will. And has a cute boyfriend too.
A couple of the supporting characters steal the stage— Jay Russell as goat-prof Dr. Dillamond is utterly lovable. Billy Harrigan Tighe is dashing as Fiyero, the handsome apex of the witches’ love triangle. Sister Nessarose (Zarah Mahler) feels a bit tacked on, as so are the tacky backstories of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion (cue allusions to soap opera script devices).
The play ultimately won me over, and I may be one of the toughest critics of musical theater you'll ever meet. I love the genre but it has to be really good, and there are probably three musicals I'd call great. Wicked might just make my Top 10 — or at least as an alternate.
Wicked can be seen through Jan. 27 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. $73.50-$173.50. 813-222-1016; strazcenter.org.