Sunday, February 21, 2016

Tonight's Theater: Wicked

Tonight was the night I finally caught up with WICKED, "the untold story of the witches of Oz."

WICKED debuted on Broadway in 2003, with Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel as Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West; Joel Grey played the Wizard of Oz.

In the touring production I saw this evening at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Amanda Jane Cooper was Glinda, Emily Koch was Elphaba, and Stuart Zagnit was the wizard. The show and sets were professional and well presented.

Glinda and Elphaba meet at school, where Elphaba is depressed and unpopular due to her green appearance. Glinda, on the other hand, is shallow but very "Popular," which happens to be one of the better-known tunes.

Eventually Elphaba embraces, well, "wickedness," while Glinda slowly matures from a bubblehead -- who travels by bubble! -- into a more mature and thoughtful woman ready to lead.

Although the show's storyline had never held great appeal to me, which is one reason I'd not managed to see a production previously, I must say I was expecting to be a little more impressed than I was when I finally saw it. I didn't dislike it, and I was glad to finally see it, but "underwhelmed" would be a good adjective. I felt a bit of an outsider among the packed, enthusiastic crowd, as I just wasn't getting into either the humor or the music, especially in the first act.

A big part of the problem with the first act is that Elphaba is depressed and unhappy, which was frankly boring. Glinda's goofiness is meant to balance Elphaba, but Glinda also needs more substance to counteract Elphaba's darkness, and she doesn't gain that dramatic weight until the end of the show. The scenes at school went on and on and on, and the bland set design and costumes didn't help stir up interest either. I suspect the visual darkness of these scenes is to "cleanse the palate" for the visuals to come next, but it was all just too dull.

The show became much more interesting when the scene shifted to the gayly lit and energetic Emerald City, soon followed by Elphaba's first act finale, "Defying Gravity." Watching from 2016, there's definitely an interesting thematic parallel between "Defying Gravity" and "Let It Go" of FROZEN, with both songs having been introduced by Idina Menzel.

The second act was considerably stronger, with more ground covered plotwise and a more enthused performance by Koch, now that Elphaba has decided to let it all hang out, so to speak, riding around on her broom as the black-hatted witch. There are interesting origin stories for the Wicked Witch of the East, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow, and there's also an ending I didn't see coming.

The "inside out" storytelling, with Dorothy an unseen character who nonetheless impacts the story when her house lands in Oz, was creative. I suspect I might get more out of this show on a second viewing, fully appreciating the entire story from the outset.

That said, one of the show's weaknesses is that the Stephen Schwartz score is not exactly one you leave the theater humming. There are a handful of good tunes, including the previously mentioned "Popular" and "Defying Gravity," but for me it was simply not a memorable score. It's hard to imagine any of the songs becoming frequently recorded standards along the lines of the great show tunes of the past. While researching WICKED this evening I learned I'm apparently not the only one who has felt this way.

Based on the enthusiastic reaction of tonight's audience, not to mention the show's track record, my take is a minority view; if it weren't, the show wouldn't have lasted as long as it has!

WICKED plays at Segerstrom Hall at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through March 6th.

Related posts: Tonight's Theater: The Phantom of the Opera; Tonight's Theater: My Fair Lady; Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 14, 2010); Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 22, 2010); Tonight's Theater: Beauty and the Beast; Tonight's Theater: Mary Poppins; Tonight's Theater: West Side Story; Tonight's Theater: A Christmas Carol; Tonight's Theater: White Christmas; Tonight's Theater: The Lion King; Tonight's Theater: 42nd Street.


Blogger Maricatrin said...

I was actually hoping you wouldn't like it, and I'll admit to reading your less-than-enthusiastic review of it with some personal satisfaction. I've never seen the whole play (just a few numbers from it), but I have read a fairly detailed plot-outline, and it seems to me like a very revisionist oriented play which trashes the original story... I don't take kindly to the villains of my childhood being reinvented as misunderstood underdogs.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I chuckled over your comment, Mary. I sometimes tend not to like those types of revisions myself...although the "back stories" invented for characters like the Wicked Witch of the East, the Scarecrow and Tin Man in this show were fun!

I'm glad I saw it and hope I wasn't too hard on it, but...I'm sure not humming the songs today as I typically would after seeing a musical.

Best wishes,

1:53 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

There's an opposite side to that revisionism. I can't tell the whole story on a family forum, but I met a young man about ten years ago who told me that he'd seen WICKED on Broadway. This guy seemed like a young executive, well-dressed, well-spoken. He told me that, somehow, he had never seen WIZARD OF OZ in his life. But after enjoying WICKED so much, he rented the DVD of WIZARD OF OZ, and he hated it. He said he started yelling at the screen (what he yelled is what I can't share with you). He was outraged that the misunderstood witch of WICKED was presented in such an unflattering light in WIZARD. He turned the DVD off without finishing it.

Personally, I've never see WICKED so I don't know. I did audition for it (the very tour you saw matter of fact) but they wanted nothing to do with me. I do know and have worked with Stephen Schwartz, who's a very nice and -- obviously -- a very talented man. He's written a lot
of wonderful songs but I don't know the score of WICKED comment.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Rick, that's a fabulous story! How fascinating he had trouble going back to the 1939 telling of the story.

It would have been fun if you'd been in this tour! It's interesting that Schwartz cowrote two of my all-time favorite Disney songs, from POCAHONTAS (1995) -- but in that case he only wrote the lyrics. Lovely to hear he's a nice person.

Best wishes,

2:52 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

Laura, glad you got a chuckle out of it :-)

Hi Rick, that’s an interesting (and to me, a rather sad) story. A classic film with unforgettable music and song was ruined for someone by a lesser work. The revision can’t exist without the original, so it’s easy for me to choose which work I consider more valid. Of course the original story by Frank Baum was the very first telling, and while I enjoy the freely adapted Garland film more, I wasn’t moved to profanity when I read the original (despite the many changes), as in both the wicked were still wicked, and the good still good.

It's like when I saw (and loved) IVANHOE (1952) as a child, and a few years later read the original novel. While I was a little disappointed that Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe had much less to do in the book, I wasn't upset, because his character still possessed his knightly nobility. It wasn't like he was abducting damsels and plotting with Prince John! (lol)

8:30 AM  
Blogger The La Beur Chronicles said...

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your openness on your site with the content and reviews. My girlfriend and I saw Wicked in San Diego in 2014. It was her first musical, a gift for her birthday. She throughly enjoy it! I appreciate your candor in your educated perspective of Wicked as a storyline. To others not as well rounded to theater, please do try to see Wicked if only to see a side untold by F.L Baum we all grew up with. I appreciated the musical for that fact alone. I much prefer plays as to musicals, yet Wicked was surprisingly enjoyable! And I agree with you Laura, the original book is by far my personal favorite. Please keep up the great work Laura! Your gift of writing and knowledge of this subject matter is very important and Encouraging to those fortunate enough to find your informative site! Bravo!


12:40 AM  

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