The yellow brick road may have taken Wicked to Broadway and beyond, but the winds of good fortune have blown the hit musical back into San Francisco, where it is poised to cast its spell for as long as it can in an open engagement at the Orpheum theater.
Wicked, with music by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzmann, is officially based on Gregory McGuire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, but unofficially borrows heavily from the 1939 film starring Judy Garland. Unlike L. Frank Baum’s classic tale and the movie that was based upon it, Wicked’s story begins on the other side of the rainbow, where Elphaba (the Wicked Witch) and Glinda the Good are friends and rivals in a pre-Dorothy Oz.
If you’re like me and had a not-so-secret affinity for the Wicked Witch of the West growing up, you’ll love Wicked’s simple but subversive premise. The show chronicles the creation of a pop culture icon as Elphaba transitions from a self-conscious green girl (a condition that makes her a veritable pariah even by the standards of other eccentric citizens of Oz) into a powerful force to be reckoned with. “I don’t cause commotions,” she says, “I am one.”
As Elphaba, Teal Wicks absolutely nails it. With a cast recording as popular as Wicked’s it can be hard to please audiences who have very set expectations of what the music should sound like. Wicks manages to infuse Elphaba’s songs with a unique style that combines superb technique with genuine emotion. Her performance of the show’s defining musical number, “Defying Gravity,” is spot on but I would contend that where she is truly brilliant is in her unbridled rendition of “No Good Deed,” where she portrays Elphaba’s embrace of the Wicked Witch persona with relish. Just like a twister, her voice can bring down a house.
Equally significant is Glinda’s transformation from blonde bimbo to responsible ruler. Kendra Kassebaum manages to make even the early Glinda lovable. She play’s the seemingly vacant sorceress to great comedic effect (especially in the number “Popular”), in Act I and yet, by the time Act II rolls around, Kassebaum has uncovered a wonderfully surprising sense of longing and hurt in Glinda.
I would be remiss not to mention the hilarious Carol Kane (who I will always think of as the grandma from the Addams Family movies) as the devious Madame Morrible, and David Garrison as the vaudevillian Wizard of Oz. Garrison is so earnest in his portrayal that even when you know the Wiz is up to no good, you just want to say “Aaaw, shucks” and forgive him anyway.
Overly saccharine at times, Wicked dares you to resist its unabashed embrace of the sentimental. A far cry from the dark tone of McGuire’s novel, the musical embraces a modern, pop sensibility that is ever present in Stephen Schwartz’s score. There are so many one-liners and zingers strewn throughout the script that audience members may feel all punned out by the end of Act I.
But just when things seem to be getting a little too Disney-fied, the show ventures, albeit briefly, into darker territory. Underneath the Wizard’s convincing layer of hick-town sincerity is a ruthless scaremongering politician. Even in this new era of “Hope and Change” the parallels to the Bush years are not lost.
When the story wanes, there is always a moment of colossal spectacle that is ready to dazzle: the beautiful costumes that simultaneously reference and reinvent the world of Oz, the revolving door of awe-inspiring set pieces and an endless onslaught of special effects that are too good to give away here.
If the shows incredibly polished production values are the icing on the cake, then Elphaba and Glinda’s remarkable friendship is the moist and spongy center that keeps the whole thing together. It’s become standard for musicals to extol romance as the greatest expression of love, so it’s refreshing to see a story where friendship is presented as an equally important force of change and growth in people’s lives. My guess is that what will cement Wicked’s well-deserved place in popular mythology won’t necessarily be the “Oh my Oz” moments created by Universal Studios, which produced the show. I think it will have more to do with how Elphaba and Glinda’s friendship is a testament to the incredible rewards we can reap when give the people we think we loathe another chance.
Wicked is now playing at the Orpheum Theater. For more information on purchasing tickets please visit www.sfhnsf.com or call 415-551-2000.