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Stephanie J. Block as Elphaba


Fox Theatre Broadway Series

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By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
- Macbeth IV, 1

Something, in this case, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman. It's the hit 2003 musical Wicked, freely adapted from Gregory McGuire's darkly satirical 1995 novel of the same name, and while it may be lighter and less - well - wicked than its source material, it still packs quite a punch.

Both the novel and Holzman's adaptation deal with the way in which appearances can be deceiving and the ease with which a lie can be accepted as the truth when accompanied by charisma and a pretty face. Both make these points by way of a subversively revisionist take on the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch of the North and Elphaba, the allegedly Wicked Witch of the West, and both make it clear that their authors' sympathies are entirely with Elphaba. Where they differ is in the details of the story itself.

Rather than try to stuff McGuire's sprawling and lively novel into the confining structure of a two-act musical, Holzman has wisely chosen to write an entirely new and far simpler story that nevertheless keeps the book's major themes and character relationships intact. Glinda is still an Oz valley girl who discovers, almost too late, that getting what you want may cost a lot more than you thought. The Wizard is still a pleasantly avuncular fascist, although his role is considerably larger. And Elphaba is still a brilliant sorceress, an outspoken advocate for the talking animals The Wizard wants to suppress and - of course - still bright green.

Many of the secondary characters and story threads from the literary original have been cut entirely, and some interesting new ones added. Holzman has, for example, found an ingenious way to link Elphaba's sincere but not always successful attempts to use her magical powers for the benefit of others with the origins of The Cowardly Lion, The Tin Man, and The Scarecrow. This provides both a dramatically satisfying way to pull in characters who, in the original, are little more than off-stage players and a dramatic second-act song ("No Good Deed") in which Elphaba mourns the death of her ideals.

Finally, in the biggest departure from the novel, Holzman has given Elphaba and her lover Fiyero a more-or-less happy ending which, at least for me, had a kind of Hollywood-style falseness that's not present anywhere else in the script. Fans of the book may find this distressing, but as McGuire himself is on record as stating that Holzman "has honored the intentions of the original and made Wicked her own", most theatergoers can simply relax and enjoy the entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking results.

Elphaba and Glinda are, of course, the binary star system around which the show revolves. Happily, the current tour of Wicked is graced with a pair of actresses who are, all things considered, more than up to the challenge. Stephanie J. Block is a commanding presence as Elphaba, vividly communicating the character's determination and despair. Her Act I finale, "Defying Gravity" - in which she declares her independence from The Wizard's corrupt political agenda - has all the dramatic impact composer Stephen Schwartz and director Joe Mantello clearly had in mind.

St. Louis native Kendra Kassebaum is all superficial light to Block's fierce darkness. It's a great comic role that turns dramatic and very nearly tragic by the end of the show and Kassebaum handles both aspects with considerable skill. I do think, however, that she has a tendency to slightly overplay Glinda's "excited puppy" mannerisms early on, which makes the character's eventual getting of wisdom a bit less convincing than might otherwise be the case.

The role of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz originated with Joel Grey and it clearly calls for a kind of Harold Hill-style charm combined with the ability to execute a nimble soft shoe. Musical theatre veteran David Garrison manages both in style. Carol Kane hits all the appropriate smug and supercilious notes the ethically flexible Madame Morrible and Derrick Williams is a terrific Fiyero, the breezy aristocrat who turns out to be not quite the lightweight he wants everyone to believe.

Jenna Leigh Green is very effective as Elphaba's crippled sister Nessarose - she of the ruby slippers - and Logan Lipton is a properly anguished Boq, the Munchkin whose unrequited love for Nessarose leads to one of Elphaba's botched attempts at magical aid. Timothy Britten Parker rounds out the generally strong lineup of principals as Doctor Dillamond, the goatish history professor who is an early victim of the Wizard's campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Composer Stephen Schwartz, whose credits include Pippin, Godspell, The Baker's Wife and Rags, has assembled one of his strongest scores yet for Wicked, with powerful solos, solid ensemble numbers, and literate lyrics. But don't take my word for it. McGuire himself, in his notes for the Broadway cast recording, praises the way in which the score "respects the book's tensions and ambiguities". Comic numbers harbor darker harmonies while dramatic songs have a slight comic edge. To quote W.S. Gilbert (no slouch at the well-turned lyric himself), "Things are seldom what they seem".

Eugene Lee's clockwork-themed sets are elaborate enough to maintain the fairy-tale atmosphere but simple enough to enable lightning-fast scene changes and Susan Hilferty's costumes are appropriately whimsical. Joe Mantello's direction and Wayne Cilento's musical staging keep things moving along nicely without calling too much attention to themselves. As is often the case at the Fox the amplified sound made mush of the lyrics at times, particularly in ensemble numbers, so a quick listen to the Broadway cast recording before seeing Wicked couldn't hurt.

And you certainly should see Wicked, assuming you can still find tickets. It's a solid piece of contemporary musical theatre that fully deserves its reputation. Wicked runs through December 4th [2005] at the Fox; call Metrotix at 314-534-1111 for tickets.

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Copyright 2003 Chuck Lavazzi

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