Updated: Mar 25, 2022
"It’s not easy being green!"
Winner of 90 international awards, including 10 Tony Awards, a Grammy, 11 Drama Desk Awards, and 10 Outer Critics Circle Awards, “Wicked” has managed to cast its magical spell over audiences of all ages across the world for almost two full decades.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Gregory Maguire that re-imagined the stories and characters created by L. Frank Baum in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “Wicked” tells the incredible story of an unlikely but profound friendship between two girls who first meet as sorcery students. Their extraordinary adventures in Oz will ultimately see them fulfill their destinies as Glinda The Good, and Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West.
In truth, there are flying monkeys, flying witches and even flying scenery, but the musical itself truly soars, especially when its two marvelously talented leading ladies unleashes the kind of vocal magic that absolutely needs no supernatural assistance.
The latest incarnation of this impeccably oiled entertainment machine finds a new gear courtesy of the sumptuously elegant Segerstrom Center for the Arts, hosting the Second National Tour that visits over 30 major cities. The show plays here through March 6th.
A Penn State BFA alumni with a real-life sister named Glinda, the incredible Talia Suskauer steps up as the green-skinned Elphaba, a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West, and nearly blows the roof off Segerstrom Hall with her opening number, “The Wizard and I.” As the song reaches its climax, Ms. Suskauer raises her arms, not especially high, but in a crooked witchly fashion, showing off the kind of smart physicality she brings throughout the evening. Opposite her as Glinda the Good, Allison Bailey aces the delicate assignment of being both ditzy blonde and sensitive friend (a role no doubt harder than it appears), while opening the show with the ultra-clear delivery of "No One Mourns the Wicked."
As the hyper-clever “prequel” to the L. Frank Baum classic, “The Wizard of Oz” (which of course inspired the beloved 1939 movie), Maguire's titillating book is an imaginative exercise in literary fantasia. It turns over the magical tapestry of Baum’s tale and reveals the messy knots of yarn on the backside, providing an apologia for the much-maligned Wicked Witch and questioning the comfortingly simple definitions of good and evil retailed by children’s book writers.
This is accomplished subtly by Winnie Holzman (creator of the TV series “My So-Called Life”), who smartly trims, condenses and clarifies the novel’s plot, creating a new thicket of themes and characters while adding some familiar throwaway gags that allude to beloved elements of the original. Tellingly, some of the evening’s heartiest laughter arose whenever the newfangled legend intersects with some iconic moment or object from the original.
Visually, "Wicked" is a wonder to behold. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the cavernous Segerstrom Hall is the curious blend of mechanics and earthiness (wheels and cogs and metals and beams and tangled undergrowth); the set calls to mind instantly the symmetry of Dorothy's rural Kansas and the urban progress of The Emerald City. This smart duality — countrified Americana and other-worldly Oziana — is carried out in every set, costume and lighting effect in "Wicked," where things look much like 19th century American garb, crossed with ultra-modern odd angles that is both jarring and comfortable at once.
The musical opens as Allison Bailey, making a delicious turn as Glinda, enters aloft in a silver bubble to announce the demise of the nefarious Witch of the West. This shrewd starting point, considering the bombastic, almost dark chorus that composer Stephen Schwartz chooses to relate this news, contrasts decidedly with the zippy classic number Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg cooked up for that same occasion in the MGM picture. (“Ding Dong, the witch is dead…”)
The musical then unfolds as a long flashback. It seems the Wicked Witch was once a misfit teen named Elphaba (Ms. Suskauer), mocked and reviled for the curious hue of her skin. Galinda — soon to be the vowel-excised Glinda — makes her acquaintance when they are both enrolled in the University of Shiz, and their contrasting personalities and priorities strike sparks. Ms. Bailey’s Galinda is the pert, pretty, lovably spoiled and snobbish picture of self-satisfaction (think a highly caffeinated Elle), and the actress’s dramatic soprano of a voice and laser-sharp comic timing turns her every exclamation into a zinger (“The artichoke is steamed,” she quips merrily when Elphaba flares up in anger). Elphaba, outcast, bringing to mind an Ally Sheedy-like character with her glasses and drab clothes, takes an instant dislike to her new antipodal roommate, too.
In one of the evening’s livelier and most appealing numbers, they sing a comic anthem of mutual disdain: “What is this feeling? Fervid as a flame. Does it have a name? Yes! It’s loathing, unadulterated loathing!” Their antipathy, and Elphaba’s natural affinity for the tortures of teenhood, might have supplied continuing zest, but through a complicated series of transactions that endow Galinda with a magic wand and Elphaba with her signature pointy chapeau, they are soon reconciled, at least, for a while. To mark this new change and acceptance of friendship, Galinda changes her name to Glinda.
And with that, the musical takes off on a long yellow brick road, dancing around the trials of self-realization and teen angst. While the budding witches study sorcery under the suspiciously enthusiastic tutelage of Madame Morrible (Lisa Howard, vamping merrily somewhere between Dame Maggie Smith in the “Harry Potter” series and Angela Lansbury 1982’s “Sweeney Todd” film), we learn that in Oz, animals have advanced to the talking stage. But dark forces are attempting to strip away their rights and privileges.
“Can you imagine a world where animals are kept in cages? And they never speak?” asks the enraged Elphaba, who vows to use her powers to fight the oppression of the animal species. The musical does not shrink from drawing larger contemporary parallels, either. Elphaba meets her foe when she finally encounters the Wiz himself, played with fleet-footed waggish charm by Broadway’s Tony winner, Cleavant Derricks (“Dreamgirls”). After singing a jaunty vaudevillian number about being “A Sentimental Man,” the Wiz reveals he’s the one behind the systematic oppression: “Where I come from, everyone knows: The best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy.”
That kind of didacticism isn’t easy to pull off in a musical that spends much of the second act exploring a trite love triangle between Elphaba, Glinda and the curiously indistinct character of Fiyero (Jordan Litz), who veers weirdly between shallowness and nobility (maybe because he’s a composite of two characters in the book).
But again, Director Mantello’s most impressive collaborators here are his two stars, who glitter in very distinct styles as powerfully vibrant voices cut through the synthesizer-heavy orchestrations with an ease and electricity that inspires shivers from the amazed onlookers.
As for Ms. Bailey, she has been given the form-fitting role of a lifetime. She gets all the best wisecracks and reveals the freshness and flexibility of her silvery lyric soprano on songs both comic and sincere (her peppy paean to the glories of being “Popular” is probably the evening’s highlight). Playing Glinda as a spoiled child whose balloons keep getting burst, she effortlessly lights up the stage whenever she unveils her disingenuously sweet smile, flashes a steely look from her bright eyes, gives us a little kick, or primly flips her blond tresses. There is indeed a bit of witchcraft in the way this diminutive performer beams her way into the hearts of the audience. Magic wand not needed.
As for Talia Suskauer, no one brings this girl down. Ms. Suskauer rises high, literally and vocally, reaching notes in the upper stratosphere, chilling the audience in numbers like “I’m Not That Girl,” her duet with “Defying Gravity,” and “No Good Deed.” And, it doesn’t hurt that she is ravishingly beautiful, even with florescent bright green skin.
Backstory on that: Elphaba was the biological daughter of an heiress and had remarried Oscar Zoroaster Diggs, who would one day be known as the Wizard of Oz. Diggs had seduced and drugged her with a green "Miracle Elixir" and Elphaba grew up believing her stepfather was her biological father. The elixir is what caused Elphaba's skin condition and her noble lineage is what allowed her to read the Grimmerie, and practice the book's magic spells that no one else in Oz could understand. L. Frank Baum may have derived elements of the Wizard from Washington Harrison Donaldson, a balloonist, ventriloquist and stage magician who worked for P. T. Barnum. On 15 July 1875, Donaldson made an ascent near Chicago and disappeared in a storm; neither he nor his balloon was ever seen again
Among the show’s many happy surprises: Amanda Fallon Smith charms us from a wheelchair as Nessarose (the future Wicked Witch of the East), until that unfortunate incident with a falling house. James Lynn Abbott’s best moment of choreography comes from a beautifully rendered bit of quiet ballet that arrives unexpectedly during the energetic “Dancing Through Life.” And Clifton Davis’ transformation into a realistic goat human, the respected Dr. Dillamond (you may remember Mr. Davis from the 70’s “That’s My Mama.” He also wrote the Jackson 5 hit, “Never Can Say Goodbye”). And DJ Plunkett almost steals the show as the munchkin Boq, who’s not really so munchkin, and ends up without a heart. Sound familiar?
This is a musical with a lot going on. Packed with thrilling technical wizardry, dazzling costumes, an ingenious and witty story and show-stopping songs by multi-Grammy® and Academy Award® winner Stephen Schwartz, “Wicked” is an unforgettable, enchanting experience that is not to be missed, revealing itself to be, more than anything else, a cautionary tale about learning to live with one’s choices.
CAST: TALIA SUSKAUER as Elphaba; ALLISON BAILEY as Glinda; LISA HOWARD as Madame Morrible; CLEAVANT DERRICKS as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; CLIFTON DAVIS as Doctor Dillamond; WAYNE SCHRODER as Witch’s Father; MARINA LAZZARETTO as Witch’s Mother; MEGAN LOOMIS as Midwife; AMANDA FALLON SMITH as Nessarose; DJ PLUNKETT as Boq; JORDAN LITZ as Fiyero; WAYNE SCHRODER as Ozian Official; TRAVANTE S. BAKER as Chistery. ENSEMBLE: NICK BURRAGE; JORDAN CASANOVA; MATT DENSKY; MARIE EIFE; RYAN PATRICK FARRELL; SARA GONZALES; MARINA LAZZARETTO; MEGAN LOOMIS; RYAN MAC; JENNAFER NEWBERRY; ALICIA NEWCOM; JACKIE RAYE; REBECCA GANS REAVIS; ANDY RICHARDSON; PAUL SCHWENSEN, JUSTIN WIRICK. STANDBY FOR ELPHABA: Natalia Vivino.
UNDERSTUDIES: MARIE EIFE; JENNAFER NEWBERRY; JACKIE RAYE; RYAN MAC; PAUL SCHWENSEN; DAVID SCOTT PURDY; WAYNE SCHRODER; SARA GONZALES; MEGAN LOOMIS; MATT DENSKY; ANDY RICHARSON; JACKIE RAYE; JENNA NICOLE SCHOEN; ANTHONY LEE BRYANT; RYAN PATRICK FARRELL; BEN SUSAK.
SWINGS: ANTHONY LEE BRYANT; ALIDA MICHAL; DAVID SCOTT PURDY; JENNA NICOLE SCHOEN. DANCE CAPTAINS/SWINGS: KELLY LAFARGA; BEN SUSAK.
CREW: Director Joe Mantello; Orchestrations WILLIAM DAVID BROHN; Music Supervisor STEPHEN OREMUS; Musical Staging WAYNE CILENTO; Dance Arrangements JAMES LYNN ABBOTT; Settings EUGENE LEE; Costumes SUSAN HILFERTY; Lighting KENNETH POSNER; Conductor/Music Director EVAN ROIDER; Sound TONY MEOLA; Projections ELAINE J. McCARTHY; Wigs & Hair TOM WATSON; Makeup Design JOE DULUDE II; Special Effects CHIC SILBER; Technical JAKE BELL; Musical Arrangements ALEX LACAMOIRE & STEPHEN OREMUS; Production Stage Manager DAVID O’BRIEN.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts proudly presents WICKED, presented by Marc Platt, Universal Stage Productions, The Araca Group, Jon B. Platt and David Stone; music and lyrics by STEPHEN SCHWARTZ; book by WINNIE HOLZMAN; based on the novel by GREGORY MAGUIRE. February 9th through March 6th, 2022, in Segerstrom Hall, Tuesdays-Fridays 7:30PM; Saturdays 2PM and 7:30PM; Sundays 1PM and 6:30PM. All Covid-19 protocols apply for entry. For tickets to upcoming performances, visit www.scfta.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Joan Marcus