Wicked | The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz

play_galinda.jpgThese seeming representatives of good and evil, presented as archenemies in The Wizard of Oz, here are two college roommates and reluctant best friends who will ultimately change each other’s lives "For Good," as they sing in the end of Act II.

 

 

 

 

 

Fabulous Fox Theater, St. Louis

play_elphaba-galinda.jpg 

As with most kids who grew up before the time of DVDs, video games and cable TV, the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz on network television was always a major event in our house. And, like most kids of that time, I would always go to bed afterward terrified of the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West (played to eerie perfection by the late Margaret Hamilton) and her minions of flying monkeys. She was, without question, one of the most famous and frightening villains of all time.

The 1939 film (one of the earliest to be deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress), was based on the even earlier children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, which painted a much darker and more detailed picture of the Land of Oz. It was this story that was the basis for contemporary novelist Gregory Maguire’s masterpiece Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, on which the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical is based.

As a lifelong fan of this incredible tale in all of its incarnations (including the other Broadway musical based on the story, 1975’s The Wiz), I highly anticipated seeing its latest adaptation. Since Wicked opened on Broadway in 2003, the show has become an international sensation, breaking box office records around the world. Now I understand why. Wicked is hands-down the best Broadway musical I have seen yet. One might think it blasphemy to alter a story that is so near and dear to an entire culture—yet this story is one that needs to be told, as it’s far more entertaining than anything Dorothy Gale ever did in Oz.

Every story has two sides, and that is precisely the premise of this highly clever stage adaptation of Maguire’s novel. What if the Wicked Witch isn’t really that wicked? And what if the Good Witch really isn’t all that good? Until now, we have only seen this story from Dorothy’s perspective, but as the show’s description says, "Long before Dorothy dropped in, two other girls met in the land of Oz." One was a green-skinned outcast named Elphaba and the other a beautiful, popular girl named Galinda. Once you’ve seen Wicked, you’ll never look at their story the same way again.

While the entire cast did a splendid job, the standout stars of this show are the witches: Elphaba, played by Carmen Cusak, whose powerful voice soared in the acoustically perfect Fox; and Glinda, played delightfully by Katie Rose Clark. These seeming representatives of good and evil, presented as archenemies in The Wizard of Oz, here are two college roommates and reluctant best friends who will ultimately change each other’s lives "For Good," as they sing in the end of Act II.

The two young witches meet as new students of magic at Shiz University, not far from the green glow of the Emerald City, where Galinda (she later changes her name) is somewhat akin to Elle Woods from Legally Blonde: popular, pretty and eager to share her God-given talents for makeovers, hair-flipping and popularity with her less-than-fortunate roommate. Elphaba, born with green skin after her mother drinks an emerald elixir on the eve of her conception, has endured a life of prejudice and loneliness, her only duty to care for her invalid sister Nessarose. For Elphaba, to quote Kermit the Frog, "it’s not easy being green," yet her special circumstances have also given her special powers of magic and wizardry that Galinda does not possess.

What Galinda does possess is the handsome prince Fiyero, for whom both girls ultimately fall, causing a rift in their deep friendship that is complicated by their differing ambitions. Elphaba, the reluctant heroine of the story, is compelled by the fate befalling the animals of Oz. Once able to speak and live freely, they are now being persecuted by the not-so-wonderful Wizard as second-class citizens. Elphaba identifies with this kind of bigotry and vows to help them, a decision that ultimately leads to her own persecution by the Wizard and all of Oz.

Although this story is different than the one we know and love, there are subtle connections to the original made throughout—and several "a-ha" moments as the audience discovers the origins of the beloved characters of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. Even Dorothy comes into play in Act II, but this time, she’s not the one we are rooting for.

While the story is what makes Wicked truly unique, the production itself is nothing short of amazing with costumes, sets, lighting and special effects that stun the senses and Grammy-winning original music that is some of the best ever composed for a Broadway show. The signature, final number of the first act, "Defying Gravity," has Elphaba "flying" high in the air on her broomstick, surrounded by smoke and light, the entire company beneath her, leaving the audience positively breathless.

Every moment of this show was highly entertaining and well performed, and I’m already looking forward to seeing it again when it undoubtedly returns. Gregory Maguire laid the groundwork for this story with his rich fantasy novel (more akin to Tolkien), but it comes brilliantly to life on stage with humor, warmth and the compassion of a true friendship that defies gravity and expectation. | Amy Burger

Wicked runs through January 6, 2008. Tickets are $28-150, available at the Fox Theatre box office, online, or by calling MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or 800-293-5949. Showtimes are Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Wed. Dec. 26 & Thurs. Dec. 27 at 1 p.m.; Tues. Jan. 1 at 2 p.m.

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