I do not live under an actual rock, but you may be excused from thinking I do, as I am among what I estimate to be the five people left on the planet who have never seen the smash-hit musical Wicked. I should say “was among,” as my companion and I lowered the numbers of the uninitiated by two Thursday night, the second night of the second production of Wicked to appear at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
I’m glad I waited.
I did not come to the show, as so many of my fellow-audience members seemed to have, with a preconceived notion of Elphaba and Galinda (“the ga is silent”) in my head. I did not bemoan the fact that the Segerstrom stage is slightly smaller than a typical New York theater’s, nor did I long for a larger orchestra. In short, everything felt exactly as it should be, and so I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of Wicked, completely free of expectation.
To be honest, I actually went home and YouTubed scenes from the original Broadway cast, as I couldn’t imagine anyone doing a better job than the two stellar actresses who graced the Segerstrom stage on Thursday night. Dee Roscioli, as the misunderstood Elphaba, was a revelation; her performance, whose repressed intensity called to mind Donna Murphy in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, was intelligent and nuanced, especially when you consider the fact that Roscioli has played Elphaba in more performances than any other actress. Her portrayal of Elphaba’s fragile ego juxtaposed against her rock-solid convictions was as fresh as if she’d never spoken her lines before. Her powerful, lyrical voice, especially in the roof-raising final number of the first act, “Defying Gravity,” did one of those lifting-of-the-hairs-on-your-arms things so rare in the theater today.
As Galinda, the deceptively beautiful and thoroughly egocentric teen who will go on to become the bubble-wrapped Glinda the Good, Cassie Okenka was pure delight. So blissfully un-self-aware that her monomania had a certain charm, Okenka’s Galinda was like every self-absorbed teenager who expects everyone to love her just as much as she loves herself – and most do. Watching Okenka “make-over” her new friend in the hilarious number “Popular,” one can’t help but finding infectious her thorough delight with her handiwork and her genuine wish to share her own fabulousness with her new friend. The revelation here was that Okenka was the Galinda understudy for Patti Murin, a detail I happily didn’t notice till halfway through the show and which spoke to the depth of the talent in this touring cast.
Those familiar with the show got all they expected out of the sets and costumes: the red-eyed dragon loomed above the orchestra; the Wizard’s facade spit fire and rattled the walls with his booming voice; and of course, Elphaba flew in a thrilling display. So often in contemporary musicals, pyrotechnics and special effects substitute for good story-telling and compelling characters, but in Wicked, there are just enough of them (and of the countless dazzling costumes) to enhance a story that is both about magic and about what passes for it. Director Joe Mantello excels at moving things at a rapid pace while exploiting each moment for its full theatrical potential.
Speaking of the book, when I discovered that Winnie Holzman had written it, I understood why the gentle humor and heartfelt emotions were tempered by a strong whiff of irony. Holzman has created or written for three of the best-written, most deeply observed television shows about human relations: “My So-Called Life,” “thirtysomething” and “Once and Again.” Her insight into teenage friendships especially, enhanced what was already on the page in Gregory Maguire’s popular book upon which the musical is based. Obviously, Holzman had to compress a lot of story into a two-hour show and occasionally things proceed a little too quickly (don’t blink or you’ll miss what changes Elphaba and Galinda from being sworn enemies into lifelong friends), but for the most part, she succeeds admirably.
The score, by Stephen Schwartz, is also a blast from the past. Known more recently for his work in animated films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Prince of Egypt, many of us remember Schwartz for his work in the musicals Godspell and Pippin. As in those shows, the music of Wicked is mostly upbeat and hummable, with occasional flashes of dark brilliance – as in the aforementioned “Defying Gravity” – or lyrically complex as in “Popular.” Overall, however, to this reviewer, the songs and score are more serviceable than extraordinary; but don’t tell anyone, as Wicked’s fiercely loyal fans may set the witch hunters on me.
Presumably, most readers won’t need to be convinced that Wicked is a show worth seeing, but let me assure you that this is a production of that beloved show that is more than well worth it – if you love Wicked you must see the extraordinary performances (including Kim Zimmer’s as a hilariously grotesque Madame Morrible, and Cliffton Hall’s as the surprisingly soulful hunk, Fiyero) that grace the Segerstrom stage until March 17.
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