“Wicked,” still defying gravity, at the Marcus Center
The touring company fits perfectly into Stephen Schwartz's now-classic musical, and shouldn't be missed while it's in Milwaukee.
There’s not many musicals that are able to pull off the collection of magic tricks Wicked has accomplished. For one, it’s lasted almost 10 years on Broadway, a feat only a dozen or so others have pulled off. Better still, it’s a successful adaptation of an admittedly complex and hard-to-adapt source material, Gregory Maguire’s epic fantasy novel of the same name.
Wicked is one of the few musicals I’ve come across where most everyone I mention it to knows the basic outlines even if they haven’t seen it – which makes sense, as it’s a simple, heavily marketed premise: The show follows L. Frank Baum’s Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in the time before the events of that story.
A good story needs good storytellers, and those are in no short supply. The most important pair are Glinda and Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch, who must be played by actresses with as much charisma and spark together as they have apart. By and large, those actresses – Hayley Podschun as Glinda, Jennifer Dinoia as Elphaba – succeed, inhabiting these big, big roles and making them their own.
We see Podschun first, in the jubilant prologue celebrating the witch’s death, but it’s not until we get into Glinda and Elphaba’s boarding school days that she blossoms. Podschun has two weapons: a warm, melodic voice that makes her frequent forays into Glinda’s high register less shrill, and a gift for physicality that she can use to prompt extra laughs or simply augment the quality of her performance. It’s an arsenal she best fuses together in her signature song, “Popular” (although she also sells the hell out of “Thank Goodness” in the second act). Podschun doesn’t have the technical precision to recreate the iconic recording of the song by its original caretaker, Kristin Chenoweth, so she does it one better, eschewing a pitch-perfect recreation for her own take, which relies more on girlish slapstick and playfulness than performing the song for its own sake – a much appreciated change, in my opinion.
Dinoia plays Elphaba much, much simpler, and I love it. On a meta level, it’s a difference that calls attention to the dichotomy of the play – Wicked’s remembered for the big spectacle moments, like the dramatic opening scene where Glinda flies in by bubble or the reveal of the Emerald City in “One Short Day,” but its absolute greatest moments happen on nearly bare stages, actors standing alone or in groups of one or two.
Dinoia gets her chance to embrace that simplicity often in the show, absolutely slaying her opening song, “The Wizard and I” and later applying the same method to ”I’m Not That Girl” and even the beginnings of “Defying Gravity,” before the song ramps up into finale mode. In fact, perhaps the only time I wasn’t thrilled with her vocal performances was in “No Good Deed,” where Dinoia takes the simplest melody she’s given and gives it ornamentations that diffuse the song’s anger and momentum little by little.
One of Wicked’s few structural flaws is that it spends so much time fixating on the Glinda-Elphaba relationship that its supporting cast feels almost incidental, and David Nathan Perlow, as mutual love interest Fiyero, and Zarah Mahler, as Elphaba’s wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose, proved why that’s truly a travesty.
Fiyero only gets two musical moments in the show, his sudden appearance for “Dancing Through Life” and his romantic duet with Elphaba, “As Long As You’re Mine.” Perlow handily dispatches the first, with an instant snobbery that amuses and yet somehow suggests his later growth, and pairs exceedingly well with Dinoia on the second. (As a side note, that duet is exceedingly more impressive now that I have a better understanding of how difficult it is to sing well while kneeling, as the song is traditionally staged. Bravo.)
Nessarose is even more unfairly set aside, getting bits of ensemble songs and a solo that isn’t even included on the original cast album. But Mahler didn’t just remind me why I was so sad not to hear “The Wicked Witch of the East” – she took a radically different approach to the part than I recall, playing Nessa with a scarcely controlled rage and gift for emotional manipulation that much better explains why she holds onto her reluctant lover Boq so tight, and why she ends up as a dictator of Munchkinland by the second act. It’s a brilliant decision, and Mahler has the spark necessary to achieve it.
As with any production of any play, there’s a flaw here or there I could elaborate on, but not a one should scare you away from this production. Wicked is too big a show to never return to Milwaukee again – it was just here in 2010 – so in a certain sense it’s not can’t-miss theater. But don’t miss it. This isn’t a show you’re only going to want to see once in your life, and there’s no time more wonderful than the present.
Wicked, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, runs through July 7 at the Marcus Center. Tickets can be purchased at (414) 273-7206 or the Ticketmaster box office.