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June 21, 2011

'Wicked' is back at the Kennedy Center with dynamic cast

Sometimes it’s better not to look behind the curtain.

"Wicked," the smash Broadway musical from 2003 that has returned to the Kennedy Center for a long summer run, doesn’t exactly have a whole lot of depth underneath the very diverting surface.

Inspired by the popular 1995 Gregory Maguire novel, "Wicked" provides a back story to what may be the best known, best loved of all fantasies, the one that found a Kansan girl whooshed off to Oz, where she was threatened by the Wicked Witch of the West.

Turns out that the witch, the one Margaret Hamilton played so deliciously in the 1939 film classic "The Wizard of Oz," was named Elphaba and had some severe childhood issues, along with that off-putting green complexion. Glinda, the good witch, once had another ‘a’ in her name, along with way too much self-esteem.

The two witches developed a yen for the same cute, straw-for-brains guy, a conflict that has something to do with their respective fates. Oh yes, and the Wizard was a prototypical fascist. (Perhaps the musical set out to prove Oscar Wilde’s dictum that "wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others." )

Those with firm allegiance to the movie may have the toughest time adjusting to "Wicked"; some things are so ingrained into our beings that any little change is terribly unsettling. But there is undeniable imagination in the musical’s plot (Winnie Holzman wrote the often witty book), and the whole thing is dusted with a layer of camp that has its distinct rewards.

Stephen Schwartz’s score aims to please, but many of the songs are ...

in the bland pop style that characterizes too many Broadway musicals of late, and his lyrics tend to get much too wordy to be supported by such slender melodic lines.

Issues of morality and repressive government are explored with a heavy-handed touch that doesn’t quite fit with the fantastical side of things. Although several themes have a good deal of potency, especially a chilling classroom scene right out of the Third Reich, there is little room left for development, let alone a strong emotional connection.

But if I think it’s a bit of a stretch to treat "Wicked" as profound, the way its most ardent fans do, it would also be, well, wicked, to dismiss it as "deeply shallow" (to borrow a wry line from the show).

At the very least, the musical entertains, thanks in large measure to a production that positively drips with green – not just Ozian emerald, but good old-fashioned greenbacks. This is modern stagecraft writ large. In this second national touring production, the original set design (Eugene Lee), costumes (Susan Hilferty) and lighting (Kenneth Posner) still create abundant dazzle. And Joe Mantello’s direction continues to have the action unfolding with cinematic fluidity.

Heading the cast as Elphaba is Dee Roscioli, whose long association with the role on Broadway and elsewhere shows at every turn -- she has performed it more often than anyone else. The actress manages to put sufficient life into a part that doesn’t have as much color (the green aside) as you would expect. And Roscioli’s rich voice, with a particularly lush low register, is used with great expressive power.

In many ways, Glinda is the central spark of "Wicked." She undergoes the most extensive transformation and accounts for the most infectious humor along the way. Glinda is also a close cousin to the perky, blissfully superficial heroine of "Legally Blonde" (instead of Harvard, Glinda's goal is a sorcery school), and Amanda Jane Cooper makes the most of that kinship with a performance that never runs out of bubbly charm. She gives a particularly effervescent account of "Popular," one of the most creative and satisfying items of Schwartz’s score.

Mark Jacoby uses keen acting skills and a subtly shaded voice to animate the role of the Orwellian Wizard; he delivers "Sentimental Man" and "Wonderful," Schwartz’s affectionate nods to song-and-dance numbers of yore, with great finesse.

Randy Danson does vivid work as Madame Morrible. Paul Slade Smith is endearing as Doctor Dillamond. Colin Hanlon’s Fiyero generates a good deal of spark. Stefanie Brown gets as much mileage as she can from the underwritten part of Elphaba’s sister Nessarose. Justin Brill is a charmer as Boq, and the rest of the ensemble adds dynamic punch to the finely polished production.

PHOTO (by Joan Marcus) COURTESY OF THE KENNEDY CENTER

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:03 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

Comments

Boy, Tim you sure are a curmudgeon. What does it take to get you to give a good review?xamente My daughter took me to see Wicked yesterday for my birthday. I had not read the book (a little darker, according to her) so I really enjoyed the way they wove the original Wizard into the show. The costumes were spectacular and the voices of Dee and Amanda were pure and Ethel Mermanesque in volume and purity of tone.

Sir Tim,

I must say, I as an English teacher of both Honors and AP English, I am truly disappointed in your review of the Kennedy Center's performance of Wicked in 2011. My first exposure of this incredible musical journey was at the Hippodrome in Baltimore several years ago. As much as I loved that performance, the one at the Kennedy Center (in my opinion as well as my mother and sister, for they saw the one at the Hippodrome with me), was that much better. The connection between the two witches was so incredible and surreal that it added an awesomeness and beauty that surpassed any of my utmost expectations of a great performance. Furthermore, there were NINE of us there, one being my cousin who has been in the arts since he was a young boy and still is an active professional artist who's been in too many Broadway plays for me to list. That being said, not only did he express the exceptional performance of Wicked, but we all emphatically agreed that it was one of the most exceptional performing musical each of us has ever seen. I'm not sure which performance at the Kennedy you saw of Wicked in 2011, but clearly, it was not the one that my family and I so enjoyed. If there is a better performance, please inform me, for I want to see it.

Peace, Kathy Vall

I hope my English usage was at least tolerable. Thanks for your passionate comments. We'll all have to compare notes when it returns to the Hippodrome next season.TS

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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