In just a few short years, Wicked has become an international sensation, filling up theatres wherever it goes, and leaving a trail of awards and rave reviews in its wake. At long last, Austin audiences will get to experience this landmark play for themselves as Broadway Across America brings the production right to UT’s Bass Concert Hall. Wicked tells the story of the witches of Oz, and how, because of looks, beliefs, and circumstances beyond their control, they are forced to become the “wicked” and good” witches of Oz. It’s a fascinating look behind the curtain of one of the most well-known stories of the modern canon, given a polished sheen thanks to some stellar production work and fine direction by Broadway all-star and Tony Award winner Joe Mantello.
The main strength of Wicked lies in its two leads, Elphaba, the “wicked” witch of the West, and Galinda (later Glinda), the “good” witch. Taking on these roles are two very skilled women, who each bring their own certain something to the role. The effervescent former Miss America contestant Tiffany Haas steps into the shoes of the perky Galinda, a spoiled rich girl turned Oz protector. Haas brings a certain manic energy to the role, lighting up the stage to a blinding degree every time she steps on to the boards. Anne Brummel’s Elphaba is a very different animal, a morose and brainy outcast due to her horrifying green skin, who Brummel embues with a subtle sense of sorrow. Even in her happiest moments, one sees a sense of longing and loss behind her eyes, and when the real emotional moments hit, she able to wail with the best of them. It also helps that both performers has pitch perfect voices, each adding a sense of character to each song they sing, making each tune their own.
Wicked has had its fair share of hit songs, brought into the spotlight partly because of their use in the programs such as Fox’s Glee. There’s good reason for this, since the music, by Stephen Schwartz, is quite charming. Songs like “Defying Gravity”, “As Long As You’re Mine”, and “Popular” are sure to become mainstays in the years to come, and overall the score is a wonder to behold. Some of the songs fall apart, however, when it comes to lyrics. Schwartz has created scores for some major films and plays, in particular this critic’s favorite Disney score, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he shows a slight weakness when it comes to lyrics, and here some feel clunky and forced. There are still many shining moments, and he gets more hits than misses throughout, but those few misses hurt, especially when the song brings the play to a grinding halt, as it does with The Wizard’s song “Wonderful”. Still, any song sung by the two leads, from the seething fun of “Loathing” to the heartwarming strains of “Changed for Good”, is a delight, and well worth the price of admission alone.
What truly stands out in the piece, however, is the production design. The moment you set eyes on the stage, your mouth is sure to drop, as you take in the towering animatronic dragon above the stage and the strange gears that make up most of the backdrop. Though most of this has little to the do with the play itself, it does help to pull you into the magical, whimsical world of the play. Set designer Eugene Lee also does phenomenal work in creating the Emerald City, a blast of dazzling light and shining green that nearly blinding in its brilliance, a sparkling wonderland of whimsy. Added to this is the brilliant projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy, who helps to set the scene during some very important segments of the play, with plenty of help from lighting designer Kenneth Posner. When all these elements come together, we’re treated to a bit of eye candy that is thrilling to behold, featuring a varied pallet of colors that is never quite too bright (as is usually a problem with fantasy musicals), but that always catches the eye.
If the play has one downfall, it’s the story. Even for the best writers, it would be difficult to cram all of Gregory Macguire’s novel into one film, and the story suffers for trying to fit as much of the story in as it can. The first half is a breezy look at life at The Shiz, one of the most esteemed colleges in Oz, and the experiences the witches have therein, and though it at times can get a bit too sappy or angsty for some viewers, for the most part it’s well paced and enthralling. The play hits a small skid, however, as we enter the second half, and the pacing plunges into high gear. The last act of the play tries to pack so much into its hour and a half running time that some things are glossed over at alarming speed. While the play is never truly hard to follow per se, the frantic pacing does lessen what could have been some important character development for characters such as The Wicked Witch of the East, The Tin Man, and (especially) the Cowardly Lion.
The story may have some hiccups, and some of the character may not be as fully explored as they should, but at its core, the play is still a shining piece of Broadway magic. Brummel and Haas bring dazzling life to the two leads, and the production design helps elevate the play to amazing heights, and when you add in the toe-tapping sountrack, you’ll find that the play is hard to forget, and even harder to not recommend.