NOTHING FIRES THE ENERGIES of your typical American lowbrow more surely than a figure of Evil, preferably in an austerely Manichean context. Faux-conservative windbaggery thrives on thumbnail vilification, and sculpts a steady stream of no-good-niks to hate. Tagging them, of course, with the label “liberal,” which is code for “smarter than I’ll ever hope to be.”
|Carrie Manolakos as Elphaba|
Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked ingeniously imagined a backstory for this babe, taking her far from the colorful but black-and-white characterization we know so well from the movie, and it’s fitting that this story should get a Broadway recrafting as well. I’m sure a new movie will follow.
What’s most impressive, however, is the great popularity of this piece. It’s been a Broadway sellout since it opened six years ago, and has spawned two national tours, one of which is spending a few weeks at Proctor’s Theatre. True, the theater audience tends to be a rarefied bunch, but it’s heartening to see that a live show can achieve blockbuster status in that context.
I suspect that this production does suitable justice to the Broadway original, which I haven’t seen. My biggest complaint, and I’ll get this out of the way right now, is the amplification, which (as is too often the case) muddies the blend of orchestra and singers. I don’t know if I’ll go as far as Mark N. Grant in his excellent study The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, wherein he names amplification as one of the main causes of the current mediocrity, because I’ve heard it done quite acceptably on Broadway of late.
Here, however, when the show kicks into full musical gear, the rock-accented score loses enough definition to leave the lyrics unintelligible. Solos, duets and the few moments when the vocal ensemble goes a cappella remain easy to understand.
Having said which, I found most other aspects to be first-rate. It’s a steller cast, which last Thursday night was led by standby Carrie Manolakos as Elphaba, who is born green, socially shunned and soon dons the familiar conical hat and begins wreaking spells. (“Something just comes over me sometimes.”)
She’s complemented by Heléne Yorke as the peaches-and-cream Glinda, who also proves to be not the goody-goody we always imagined. She’s a self-involved Valley Girl who unexpectedly becomes friends with Elphaba; by the time they reach their eleven o’clock number, the affecting duet “For Good,” we’re seeing a surprisingly complex relationship.
Yorke played Glinda’s affectations for well-deserved laughs, but Manolakos also did nicely with the more subtle job of conveying the humanity of a character unsure of herself – until her end-of-Act-One transformation into the witch we know and love to hate. And even then she proves to be a more complicated figure.
And the real villain of the piece? The Wizard, played with song-and-dance suavity by Don Amendolia, revealing a character who isn’t all that complex. Just mean. His number “A Sentimental Man” harkens to the novelty songs of old, the kind of thing Kern and Wodehouse dashed off, but without rising to the lyrical challenge it really deserved.
And that’s my second-biggest complaint: Stephen Schwartz’s score settles for the too-easy tropes of pop-song tradition when it could have been working a little harder to flesh out the characters and situations. It’s the curse of Sondheim, of course. The bar has been raised awfully high.
But Wicked is also about spectacle, and it delivers it in Wayne Cilento’s vigorously staged dance numbers performed by a crack ensemble. They’re costumed in finery imagined by Susan Hilferty that must require all its own, and which, when blended into the colors of Eugene Lee’s set, is a dazzling as you could hope – especially when we reach the glowingly emerald Emerald City of Oz.
Other standouts in the cast are Kristine Reese as Elphaba’s wheelchair-bound sister, David De Vries as the caprine Doctor Dillamond and Marilyn Caskey in Margaret Dumont mode as Madame Morrible. And there are flying monkeys, stunning set changes and a high-hung dragon that awakens at unexpected moments.
Wicked is a wonderful couple of hours of high-energy theater that also may make us think twice about just how bad our perceived villains truly may be.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Directed by Joe Mantello
Proctor’s Theatre, Dec. 10
– Metroland Magazine, 17 December 2009