Theater Review: Wicked is still musical magic!

December 22, 2010

Jackie Burns as Elphaba in Wicked at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Bill Beard
Theater Critic

“Chicago is so close! It really is, and entirely simple to navigate. I apologize to readers that I haven’t gone in more often to bring you news about the fantastic entertainment available there for stateline theater-goers, either avid or just occasional. I promise to go more often.”

That was the promise I made a few years ago when I reviewed the Stephen Schwartz mega-hit Wicked the first time. Well, indeed I have been going in to Chicago more often, as you can tell from the reviews you find here in The Rock River Times and online. And more than ever, I encourage all stateline theater-lovers to take advantage of the top Broadway shows coming into Chicago these days.

Well, Wicked is back in town again, at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, and it’s better than ever! It is a wonderfully twisted sort of prequel, a kind of behind-the-scenes story of L. Frank Baum’s much-loved Wizard of Oz. But don’t expect to see Dorothy running around with Toto, although you do get just a glimpse of the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and a very young Cowardly Lion. This looks at the story from an entirely new angle, rather like Hamlet as seen by Rosencranz and Guildenstern.

This is the story of the “witches of Oz,” Glinda the good one, and Elphaba the “other” one (for the derivation of her name, remember the initials of the Oz author: LFB). The show begins with the citizens of Oz celebrating the death of the wicked witch, and moves immediately into the complete retelling of the story of her life, as revealed by Glinda (who at the beginning of the story is actually Galinda).

But composer-lyricist Schwartz, with his ingenious co-creator, Winnie Holzman, tells the story from the viewpoint of Elphaba’s life story, a fascinating tale based on Gregory Maguire’s novel The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

I loved the Broadway original cast witches, Kristin Chenoweth as Galinda and Idina Menzel as Elphaba; and I also loved Kate Reinders and Ana Gasteyer in the first Chicago run. But they keep getting better. In this current national tour company, Jackie Burns, from the original cast of the Tony Award-winning revival of Hair, is outstanding as the very green Elphaba, and Chandra Lee Schwartz stays very true to Chenoweth’s original taffy-headed Glinda, but actually adds her own inventive twinkle and creative spark. Both have magnificent voices; and their character relationship is remarkable from the first moment.

The character conflict between them is pointedly established in their first duet, “What Is This Feeling” (perhaps better known as “Loathing“). This number is a perfect example of how Stephen Schwartz uses the songs of his shows to introduce and advance not only character traits, but plot development as well. Schwartz has been a legend in Broadway musicals since he gave us Godspell, one of the most oft-performed musicals of all-time. Other long-popular shows of this words-and-music magician are Pippin, Working and the beautiful Children of Eden. From these, he has taken away three Academy Awards, four Drama Desk Awards and five Grammy Awards. Now, Wicked has become bigger than all of them! Don’t miss it.

Other stand-out performances include Barbara Robertson as Madame Morrible (still as remarkable as I remember her as the Ballerina Grushinskaya in Drury Lane’s Grand Hotel); Jefferson Award-winning Gene Weygandt (one of Chicago’s finest) as The Wizard, which he also played on Broadway and in the previous run in Chicago; the talented Paul Slade Smith as Dr. Dillamond, ba-a-a-ack home from nine months in the San Francisco production; the charismatic Richard H. Blake, with extensive Broadway, TV and film credits, as the major love interest, Fiyero; and Justin Brill and Stefanie Brown as the sub-plot would-be lovers, Boq and Nessarose. Frankly, the entire ensemble deserves individual special recognition. The company is powerful!

Wicked is one of the most creatively designed shows ever. Costumes (Susan Hilferty)-brilliant! Lighting (Kenneth Posner) and settings (Eugene Lee & Edward Pierce)—and special effects (Chic Silber)—all amazing! This is another fantastic “visual” show; you must see it!

Added note: Remember that one of Rockford’s own directed this monumental production: Joe Mantello.

For reservations and information, call (877) 686-5366 or visit Ticketmaster.com.

From the Dec. 22-28, 2010 issue

One Comment

  1. Janet

    December 23, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Hi Bill! I really enjoyed your articale on “Wicked” in Chicago. Just wanted you and your readers to know that Canterbury Books and Tours in Rockford has trips to Chicago to see all the major Broadway musicals along with baseball, hockey, football, basketball games – one day trips and extended trips. We went to “Wicked” on three dates, Dec. 4, 8 and 11. We provide top price orchestra tickets and transportation. We do all the planning and driving so all you do is sit back and enjoy! We would love to take you on a trip in 2011.

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