Thursday, October 18, 2012

Defying Gravity, Almost 9 Years Later

Review:  Wicked
Chandra Lee Schwartz as Glinda and Jackie Burns as Elphaba in the Broadway production of Wicked.

Wicked is a show I’ve been interested in revisiting for quite some time.  After seeing the original Broadway cast during the summer of 2004, I left the show entertained but not blown away, and honestly wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about.  But after seeing the show do years of sell-out business in New York and on the road, while also developing an incredibly loyal fan community, my curiosity started getting the best of me.  Wicked has become not just a hit show, but a phenomenon that has struck a chord with millions of people, and I began wondering if there was something I had missed the first time around.  So eight years after my initial viewing, I headed back to the Gershwin Theatre this past weekend to view the Land of Oz with fresh eyes.

Seeing the show again, I can’t say my overarching opinion of it has changed much, but I will admit to appreciating Stephen Schwartz’s magnum opus more now than I did in 2004.  Now that the hype around the show has calmed down, it’s easier for me to evaluate the show own its own merits.  During that initial viewing, the show was widely considered a guaranteed winner for the Best Musical Tony, and as such I was evaluating it against some very high expectations (Wicked lost the award to Avenue Q just days after my first viewing).  I found Elphaba’s story to be full of big-budget spectacle but light on heart, which made the entire enterprise feel somewhat empty.

Wicked remains big and loud, but this time through I saw a lot more heart than I originally gave the show credit for.  The relationship between Elphaba and Glinda is one of the more complex musical theatre dynamics in recent history, and the musical does a good job hinting at the political implications of Gregory Maguire’s source novel without becoming bogged down with polemics.  Book writer Winnie Holzman did a great job of condensing that sprawling text into something more manageable and inherently theatrical, while still finding room to have a great deal of fun with the references to Dorothy’s concurrent adventures.  But keeping Dorothy offstage causes the second act to feel choppy, and I’d say the show’s greatest flaw is that it doesn’t satisfactorily pay off all its various plot threads.  But Holzman does give at least some indication how all of those stories turn out, which is more than can be said for a lot of lesser musical librettists.

The score is probably the best Stephen Schwartz has ever composed for the theatre, and he probably should have won his long-overdue first Tony for it.  The only explanations for his loss in the Best Score category are the absolute clunkers written for the Wizard, since the rest of the score displays an inventive adventurousness that holds up well to repeated listening.  Wicked is also one of the few shows where you can see exactly what your $135 ticket price is going toward, with lavish costumes and sets that are impressive for both their scale and attention to detail.  Joe Mantello’s staging moves everything along at a pace that never sags but still allows time for quiet character moments, which when played correctly supply the heart every good piece of theatre requires.

One concern I had going into the show was how the current cast would stack up to the near-legendary performances of the original company.  Such comparisons may not be fair but they are bound to happen, especially when this reviewer actually saw said performances and is not just extrapolating them from what’s preserved on the cast recording.  Happily, this current company acquits itself of the material quite well, with one major exception that I’ll address in a minute. 

Jackie Burns does a great job of fleshing out the different layers of Elphaba, the “Wicked” Witch of the West, making a clear transition from shy youth to impassioned freedom fighter while preserving the character’s internal logic.  Burns’ portrayal makes the show firmly (and rightfully) Elphaba’s story, rather than splitting the focus between her and Glinda as the original cast did.  Also, Burns has the vocal ability to make these oft-sung songs sound fresh and alive, an invaluable gift for such warhorses as “Defying Gravity” and “For Good.”

Many of the supporting actors do an excellent job of making a lasting impression with limited stage time.  Randy Danson chews scenery in the best possible way as Madame Morrible, displaying that perfect combination of camp and malice usually reserved for only the best Disney-style villains.  Jenny Fellner makes her Nessarose as complex as the writing will allow, keeping her sympathetic enough that we like her while understanding why other people wouldn’t.  If Kyle Dean Massey is a little too caught up in his Norbert Leo Butz impersonation to be an entirely compelling Fiyero, he still does a fine job in a role whose importance is often overstated to begin with.  And Adam Grupper is the one significant improvement over the original, as his Wizard comes across as far more interesting and menacing than Joel Grey’s ever did.

Unfortunately, the cast’s one weak link is a major one, and that is Chandra Lee Schwartz as Glinda.  Now admittedly I am biased after seeing Kristin Chenoweth’s truly transcendent take on the role, a performance I can recall in great detail to this very day.  But even grading on a curve, Ms. Schwartz fails because she is so concerned with the comedy that she forgets to make Glinda an actual human being.  Her attempts at comedy produce mixed results, and the more dramatic scenes fall completely flat.  There is nothing sympathetic about her performance, and her motivations remain so murky and unconvincing that you ultimately wish she would just go away so we could get back to the much more compelling story of Elphaba.  Considering every eligible actress in town has surely auditioned for this role, I find it tough to believe that Schwartz is the best the producers could find.*

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed my return trip to the Land of Oz.  Any complaints I have are minor in comparison to the many things Wicked does right.  With its combination of compelling characters, interesting plot, and big-budget spectacle, Wicked earns its place as one of Broadway’s biggest hits.  It may not be a great musical, but it is a very good one, and makes an excellent First Broadway Show for kids and out-of-town relatives that don’t see theatre all that often.  The current cast performs the material with an abundance of professionalism and gusto, and I for one can think of a lot worse ways to spend an evening.

*Note:  Between the time I saw the show and wrote this review, Chandra Lee Schwartz left the Broadway company of Wicked.  The role of Glinda is currently played by Alli Mauzey, who is hopefully a lot better.

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