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A CurtainUp Review

It's good to see me, isn't it?
---Glinda, making her entry in a glittering ring -- her declaration clearly announcing that she intends to provide plenty of campy fun before she grows and changes from not-so-nice Miss Popularity to good fairy
Idina Menzell & Kristin Chenoweth
Idina Menzell & Kristin Chenoweth (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Before I begin, here's what NOT to expect from the new musical Wicked: This is not a variation of the beloved Frank Baum novel and its movie adaptation. No Dorothy! No Toto! No yellow brick road reverberating with catchy tunes like We're Off to See the Wizard, If I Only Had a Heart and Over the Rainbow to indelibly imprint themselves into your ear. (Well, actually there is a glimpse of the Yellow Brick Road though as a side road -- as there are amusingly inserted glimpses of the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion's tail to show those lovable characters' evolution.)

While Wicked could not exist without Baum's classic tale this new musical's real inspirational source is Gregory Maguire's cleverly conceived and executed novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire borrowed the Wicked Witch and other Oz characters and used Baum's Land of Oz as background, much as Tom Stoppard used Hamlet as the backdrop for his brilliant Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

Here's another what NOT to expect, especially if you're one of the many enthusiastic fans of Maguire's remarkable feat of re-imagination: a faithful adaptation of the novel and an unswerving adherence to its tone. Given the shift in genres, the large investment in the show ($14million) and its huge audience swallowing venue, the Gershwin Theatre, it's not unreasonable for the creative team to have aimed at a best-of-all-world adaptation: to combine the novel's thought provoking exploration of the rainbow's darker side with the fun and spectacle of the Oz World, and to spice it all up with a generous dose of camp.

Winnie Holzman's book is a loose enough adaptation of the novel to make prior reading more distracting than necessary. It comes off more as a prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (which is familiar to young and old) than a standalone, satirical chronicle of the Wicked Witch of the West's odyssey through the dark and complex Ozian world where wicked is the adjective used for freedom loving truth tellers and the real reason Elphaba became the Wicked Witch.

The effort to please a diverse enough demographic (kids, parents, Baum and Maguire fans, all who appreciate a musical with something to say) makes for a musical that shows more than a few symptoms of multiple persoality disorder and is more dollar-driven than passionate in its championship of politically correct themes (the sisterhood of the two witches; tolerance for animals and people who look different; valuing truth over hypocrisy). Director Joe Mantello has seen to it that the physical production is a big WOW with the cavernous stage filled from top to bottom with special effects that include a giant dragon, flying monkeys and all sorts of other eye-popping visuals. Add Susan Hilferty's colorful and character establishing costumes, Kenneth Posner's shadowy lighting, and not one but two spectacular stars -- Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel -- and there's plenty here to give you the bang you should expect from your big bucks ticket.

The musical unfolds as a flashback. With Glinda (Chenoweth) an adorable Barbie Doll arriving in a swing (reminiscent of an adorable Barbie doll version of Nine's Carla), her first line a playful " It's good to see me, isn't it?" followed by the more serious announcement that the Wicked Witch of the East has been killed. This leads to a flashback that chronicles the unlikely friendship between the not-so-good fair-skinned witch Glinda (Chenoweth) and the green-skinned, inherently good Elphaba (Menzel) whose wickedness is the result of shattered idealism. Glinda and Elphaba meet in a Harry Potter-like boarding school of wizardry headed by the aptly named Madame Morrible (Carole Shelley one of several stand-outs in the supporting cast). Elphaba, who like Cinderella is a merely tolerated member of her family, has been sent to the school to look after her crippled sister Nessarose (Michelle Federer). Despite one betrayal after another on Glinda's part, the bond formed as roommates is strong enough to turn the superficial Glinda into a good witch and leave us with a redemptive duet, "For Good" which has both girls singing "Because I knew you, I've been changed for good."

Rather than detail everything leading up to the bittersweet finale, rest assured that there will be lots of twists and turns that include: a persecuted goat-professor (a touching portrayal by William Youman) who could have stepped right out of George Orwell's Animal Farm; a fun-loving prince charming named Fiyero (Norbert Leo Butz, like Chenoweth and Menzel, one of the current musical theater's outstanding young actor-singers) with whom both witches fall in love; a Munchkin named Boq (endearingly played by Christopher Fitzgerald) who loves Glinda but ends up as the crippled Nessarose's caretaker. And, oh yes, there is the Wizard (Joel Grey) as a not very wizardly dictater, who stumbled into being the power behind the Emerald City throne following the principle of "The best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy." Grey leaves it to the winged monkeys to do his dirty tricks (as spies to report on "subversive animal activity") and instead interjects a touch of vaudeville with his "Mr. Cellophane" reminiscent rendition of "A Sentimental Man."

Besides, the already mentioned songs, there are plenty of others to make the most of all these performers' superb vocal talents (Chenoweth's soprano can soar to operatic heights-- Menzel is a belter who doesn't need the over-amplification she gets). But what about the quality of the music? Anything that will make it to a hum session in the shower? Ah, there's the rub. While the show suffers from a lack of a clearly defined identity, it does succeed in reaching out to all the different audiences targeted. It's real weak spot is the music which is not helped by Wayne Cliento's standard issue choreography. "Defying Gravity" comes closest to being a show anthem. Elphaba's "No Good Deed" {as in "no good deed goes unpunished") is genuinely amusing. But we'll still be hummng Over the Rainbow and "If I Only Had a Heart", long after these songs or lyrics have been forgotten.

The Wizard of Oz saga has inspired much speculation about real life role models for its characters and its symbolic meanings. One of the most controversial theories was put forth by a history professor named Henry M. Littlefield who claimed that Baum intended his book as an allegory for the Populist Movement of William Jennings Bryan. He likened the story's opening to the rural worker's plight; Dorothy as a stand-in for every ordinary citizen; the Tin Woodman for the dehumanized factory worker; the Scarecrow as epitomizing the farmers. Littlefield went on to link the Cowardly Lion to William Jennings Bryan's as the Democratic/Populist candidate, whose famous "Cross of Gold " turned out to be just talk, while Wizard of Oz represented William McKinley, the Republican president who upheld the gold standard. Littlefield likened the Emerald City to the nation's capital, the Yellow Brick Road to the gold standard (the letters Oz being an abbreviation for how gold is measured).

Even before Maguire's novel, I read Geoffrey Ryman's fascinating Was in which he imagined what would have happened if Dorothy Gale was a real little girl in the Midwest whose tragic story Frank Baum came across through a sad essay. Ryman alternated this with parallel stories of Frances Gumm a.k.a. Judy Garland and her painful road to stardom and of a gay AIDS stricken man named Jonathan in the 1990s who decides to track the fate of the real Dorothy.

If Wicked spurs your interest in reading the source novel, it's available in paperback through our book store . With a #143 ranking it's a hit even eight years after publication . Here's hoping that the musical it inspired will meet with similar success.

Book by Winnie Holzman based on the novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Joe Mantello
Choreographed by Wayne Cilento.
Cast (alphabetical order): Norbert Leo Butz (Fiyero), Cristy Candler( Witch's Mother), Kristin Chenoweth (Glinda), Michelle Federer (Nessarose), Christopher Fitzgerald (Boq), Joel Grey (the Wonderful Wizard of Oz), Manuel Herrera (Chistery),Sean McCourt (Witch's Father), Idina Menzel (Elphaba), Jan Neuberger (Midwife), Carole Shelley (Madame Morrible), William Youmans (Doctor Dillamond), and.
Monkeys, Students, Denizens of Emerald City, Palace Guards & Other Citizens of Oz: Ioana Alfonso, Ben Cameron, Cristy Candler, KristyCates, Melissa Bell Chait, Marcus Choi, Kristoffer Cusick, Kathy Deitch, Melissassa Fahn, Rhett G. George, Manuel Herrera, Kisha Howard, LJ Jellison, Sean McCourt, Corinne McFadden, Ian Neuberger, Walter Winchell O'Neill, Andrew Palermo, AndyPellick, MichaeISeelbach, Lorna Ventura, Derrick Williams.
Set Design: Eugene Lee
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Projections: Elaine J. McCarthy
Sound Design: Tony Meola
Musical Director: Stephen Oremus
Orchestrations: William David Brohn
Orchestra--Conductor: Stephen Oretaus
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.
Gershwin, 222 W. 51 St., (Broadway/8th Av) 212-307-4100
From 10/2/03; opening 10/30/03. Tue at 7pm; Wed - Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm -- $30 - $100.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 5th performance
OK for ages 10 & Up.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • No One Mourns the Wicked/ Glinda and Citizens of Oz
  • Dear Old Shiz/ Students
  • The Wizard and I/ Morrible, Elphaba
  • What Is This Feeling?/ Galinda, Elphaba and Students
  • Something Bad/ Dr. Dillamond and Elphaba
  • Dancing Through Life/ Fiyero, Galinda, Boq, Nessarose, Elphaba and Students
  • Popular/ Galinda
  • I' m Not That Girl/ Elphaba
  • One Short Day/ Elphaba, Glinda and Denizens of the Emerald City
  • A Sentimental Man/ The Wizard
  • Defying Gravity/ Elphaba, Glinda, Guards and Citizens of Oz
Act Two
  • No One Mourns the Wicked (reprise) / Citizens of Oz
  • Thank Goodness/ Glinda, Morrible and Citizens of Oz
  • The Wicked Witch of the East/ Elphaba, Nessarose and Boq
  • Wonderful/ The Wizard and Elphaba
  • I'm Not That Girl (reprise)/ Glinda
  • As Long As You're Mine/ Elphaba and Fiyero
  • No Good Deed/ Elphaba
  • March of the Witch Hunters/ Boq and Citizens of Oz
  • For Good/ Glinda and Elphaba
  • Finale/ All
Wicked Broadway
Wicked San Francisco
any Wicked tickets
for the 2009 tour


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South Pacific

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