Hundreds of people were making their way through campus or across Central and streaming into Popejoy Hall when I finally arrived and lined up near Will Call. I was curious to see if all the hype around Wicked was truly deserved. After all, the play isn't just adapted from a best-selling novel, its original incarnation in 2003 won three Tony awards, seven Drama Desk Awards and was nominated for a Grammy. It's now the 7th longest running show in Broadway history, and is estimated to have been performed well over 6,000 times.
This isn't the first time the national tour has made a stop at Popejoy Hall, on UNM's campus, and it may very well not be the last with that track record. This iteration of the play from Universal Stage Productions featured Mary Kate Morrissey and Ginna Claire Mason in the lead roles of Elphaba and Glinda, respectively. As the play began, the set was alive with flying monkeys and a giant animatronic dragon. From the get-go, the play impresses its scale upon the audience, fully transporting us all the way to Oz.
For those not hip to this theatrical phenomenon of Wicked, as I was just a few short days ago, this is the unwritten history of The Wizard of Oz, one of political scheming, social jockeying, romance, magic and fashion, all overlaying a buddy comedy. You see, long before the Wicked Witch of the West had earned that title, she was just Elphaba, an inexplicably green young woman suffering the slings and arrows of that outrageous fortune. At school she shows incredible promise, and—in a roundabout sort of way—is befriended by Glinda. You guessed it—she's the good witch. Through a series of unfortunate events, Elphaba's moral courage is tested and so is her friendship with Glinda. That's where the heart of this story lies.
The set, the costumes, the lighting and the execution is—to be expected, perhaps—of the highest quality. Every possible element is used to synergistically create a world that feels very rich, layered and alive. Moreover, these are not impressive add-ons, they underline the action of the story and the bedrock of who each of the characters is. The cleverness of how each story element is used, adapted from the original Wizard of Oz and translated to this alternative history is perhaps best credited to Gregory Maguire, the author of the original novel, though it is artfully adapted here and put to rhythm by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman. I didn't think it would be possible, but I totally walked out of that theater with a one of the songs stuck in my head.
And let's be honest—even if musicals aren't really your thing (I mean, I'd be very reluctant to say they are my thing, for sure)—there are some out and out soaring moments here. Some scenes combine musicality with special effects to make something chill-worthy. I mean, just before intermission, Morrissey takes to the sky in “Defying Gravity” and I heard a woman in the aisle in front of me describe how no matter how many times she has seen Wicked, that scene always gives her chills. (Seriously, it’s a really good scene!)
My acupuncturist told me, days before the show opened, that what he thought was truly special about the play was its message. There is a moral to this story, after all, it is something of a fairy tale. One might even make the case that there are several lessons to be divined from all the toil and trouble of Elphaba's life. I think the main point might be distilled down to this: There's always more to the story.
There’s only one more weekend of shows left in Albuquerque this time around for Wicked. The price tag is hefty (check popejoypresents.com for a list of available seats and prices), but the play certainly delivers on all the hype. Catch Wicked in Albuquerque until Sunday, Oct. 28 with multiple showings throughout the week, and both matinee and evening performances on the weekend.