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Wicked celebrated its 20th Broadway anniversary earlier this week with a gala performance at the Gershwin Theatre on Monday, October 30. The second national tour, on the road since 2009, arrived at the Academy of Music a few days later for a monthlong Philadelphia engagement. So, how’s the Green Girl holding up?
I can’t speak to the New York production, but in terms of the road company, the verdant sheen has grown worryingly pallid. Stephen Schwartz’s musical riff on The Wizard of Oz, adapted from Gregory Maguire’s novel, still runs like a well-oiled machine. And that’s the problem. Too often, Wicked feels like a theme park ride rather than a piece of living theater. From the hulking sets to the stilted performances, everything seems slightly automated.
I don’t just mean the imposing metal dragon, which hovers over the Academy’s proscenium and occasionally breathes fire above the ornate scenery, designed by the late Eugene Lee. Or the levitating bubble that transports Glinda the Good Witch around Oz—and which resembles the claw in an arcade’s prize machine. And, of course, there is the apparatus into which Elphaba, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, straps herself to execute the show’s most famous number, “Defying Gravity.” These artificial bells and whistles are to be expected.
But, alongside them, Wicked has been stricken with the disease that afflicts many a long-running property: a sense that any genuine magic or discovery flew the coop long ago. The performance unfolds as if by rote, awash in familiarity and a generally low energy. The lights twinkle, the costumes impress, and the volume is turned up to 11. It’s loud and garish enough to justify the steep ticket prices. Yet, where once a genuine spark flickered, only embers now remain.
Wicked way back when
I have fond memories of seeing Wicked when it was a relatively new Broadway hit, as well as during its first run at the Academy, back in 2006. I last encountered it in 2017, when this same tour played a summer engagement here. While it serves no one to dwell on the past when it comes to theater, I couldn’t help drifting to my recollections of the show in its fresher days.
What stood out then was the clarity of the performances, the sharp and subtle distinctions the leading actors brought to their roles. Idina Menzel’s soft-grained Elphaba on Broadway differed from Julia Murney’s headstrong characterization on the tour. Kristin Chenoweth was slapstick silly as Glinda, while Kendra Kassebaum was a more grounded comedian.
Cogs in the machine
Such distinction is in short supply now. As Glinda, Celia Hottenstein aggressively milks every line for its full comedic potential, but just as often, she bulldozes the complex humor of Winnie Holzman’s libretto. Her wiry soprano sounds unpleasantly pinched in the character’s highest music and unsupported on the lower end. Olivia Valli’s Elphaba lacks much in the way of vocal or dramatic distinction. Rather than communicating Elphaba’s passion for social justice, she mostly seems glum. Other performances push themselves way over the top (Kathy Fitzgerald’s cartoonish Madame Morrible) or fade into the background (Tara Kostmayer’s placid Nessarose).
Among the principals, Timothy Shew fares best as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, grounding the character’s nefarious hunger for power in real human emotion. Christian Thompson sings well and acts appealingly as Fiyero, the wealthy prince whose eyes are opened to injustice by Elphaba’s crusading. But after a while, even they end up seeming like cogs in a machine.
Wicked remains incredibly popular. Students in my musical theater history class—many of whom were not born when the show had its first Broadway bow—still vie for tickets with an enthusiasm usually reserved for Taylor Swift tours. And perhaps part of the appeal for a first-time fan is to encounter something that already feels familiar and unchanging. Of course, that’s also the antithesis of theater—and why this high-flying musical now feels so earthbound.
What, When, Where
Wicked. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman; directed by Joe Mantello. $30-$200. Through November 26, 2023, at the Academy of Music, 240 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Accessible seating can be purchased in advance.
Masks are not required.
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