I went to Wicked expecting a musical brimming with kitschy costumes, catchy songs and maybe a heartfelt moment or two. That’s exactly what I got, but it wasn’t all. Wicked may be bright and sparkly and big on delivering a high moral message, but it’s also subversive, hilarious and crisp as a freshly minted dollar bill, all the way from the lights to the unbelievably executed, nearly operatic vocal work.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Wicked focuses on Oz before Dorothy got there. The Wicked Witch of the West (Elphaba) and Glinda the Good Witch are strangers when they enter sorcery school as teenagers. Elphaba, for reasons that are not entirely made clear but have something to do both with her mother’s affair and a bottle of emerald elixir, has the unfortunate condition of being green. And, as we might all expect in a culture that values both beauty and conformity, she’s laughed at by her classmates and shunned by nearly everyone, even her father. In fact, the only reason Elphaba is sent to sorcery school is to watch over her younger, prettier wheelchair-bound, sister, who’s doted on by Dad. In contrast, Elphaba’s rival Glinda is blonde, bubbly, from an influential family and therefore, obviously, the most popular girl in school.
The thing about Elphaba is that although she may look sinister, she’s got the biggest heart in all of Munchkinland. She never fails to put her sister’s needs before her own, and she becomes a crusader for the disenfranchised. But Glinda, despite her overwhelming superficiality, proves herself to be a good person, too. As you might expect, the two are paired as roommates and, after hating each other for an appropriate length of time, become best friends. The rest of the story explains exactly how they got to be polar forces in a land filled with little people and a yellow brick road.
It’s easy to see why the story has become such a hit. It has all the makings of a classic—it’s part Cinderella, part “The Ugly Duckling,” and part The Fox and the Hound. Plus, it’s a musical about witches in sorcery school plopped into a culture obsessed with “American Idol” and Harry Potter. Of course people love it. The story line, although somewhat predictable, is clever and funny. Most of the songs may not have the same ear-viral appeal as those in West Side Story, but they’re solid tunes and beautifully executed (and “Defying Gravity” may be in my head for a month). Plus, the acting is top shelf.
It’s easy to see why the story has become such a hit. It has all the makings of a classic—it’s part Cinderella , part “The Ugly Duckling,” and part The Fox and the Hound .
Elphaba, the true protagonist in the story, is played in Albuquerque by Anne Brummel. She is mesmerizing. In the opening night performance, she evoked a furious round of applause with nearly every number she delivered, due to her fantastic voice and magnetism. Her character is both reclusive and bold, and Brummel walks the line with ease. Even if she wasn’t painted bright green, she’d attract all eyes in the theater every time she was on stage. Likewise, her counterpart Natalie Daradich, who plays Glinda, is stunning. She hits notes not available to most singers and does so with flourish. She’s also a natural comedienne, both in her timing and physicality. The two are well-matched and well-cast, along with the rest of the actors. David Nathan Perlow, who plays the love interest, Fiyero, is especially talented and charismatic—it’s hard to walk away without having a crush on the guy.
Just as important as any character, scene or song is the striking set design. The background is as captivating and beautiful as any I’ve seen on stage. A large metal dragon (or the front of one, at least) holds the keystone position over the stage. Fluidly rolling in and out of view are alternating backdrops of massive, interlocking cogs; rolls of antiqued parchment; and ethereal, illuminated poppies. The lighting is equally impressive. The techs deserve a round of applause all on their own.
Wicked is a classic tale of inner beauty and good versus evil. It’s not always the most surprising of stories (and it’s not exactly feminist, despite the strong female leads—a lot of weight is still placed on “getting the guy” in the end), but it is a polished, joyous and fantastically entertaining voyage into one of America’s most-loved imaginary worlds.