Wicked

And thus endeth my Chicago adventure. Having told Languatron that I’d be seeing Wicked last night, I expected to hear tales of a knife-wielding lunatic being dragged out of the theatre lobby, screaming “I’ll get you, Glen Larson! And your little Moore, too!” Thankfully, reports of such a scene remain unconfirmed.

Yesterday was a lot of fun. We toured all three for-profit theatres in Chicago and caught snippets of understudy rehearsals for Wicked and My Fair Lady. Seeing professional actors mark through their numbers in their street clothes while accompanied by a simple piano was heartening, a reminder that my own theatre experiences really aren’t that far removed from what the big boys do. Every time I get into proximity with good theatre, there’s a piece of my insides that starts to itch for what might have been had I pursued my own career further. And at the same time, there’s another piece of me that says, “been there, done that, moving on.” Seeing the Wicked cast without the lights and the glamour helped to tap down my latent actor pangs.

The theatres themselves were, in many ways, the real show, anyway. They’re funky old movie houses with ornate detail work that has all but vanished from today’s architecture. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. They’re also not going to make them this way in Sandy City, which made me wonder what the point was. I’m not complaining, though. The food was great. Although I found out after I started eating that they put wine in my soup at lunch. Being the teetotaler that I am, I expected to be sloshed for the tour, but to my surprise, I hold my liquor fairly well.

Anyway, the big deal was the production of Wicked we saw last night, and, although I was in the next-to-last row of the almost 3,000-seat theatre, I could see and hear everything, and I had a wonderful time. I knew all of the songs from having my daughters play the soundtrack ad infinitum, and I knew the basic story as well, so there were no big surprises. It was fun, though, to see the whole thing live on stage. It was also fun to see Utah actor Summer Naomi Smart playing Nessarose. (I know her, but not well. She was in the production of Guys and Dolls at Tuacahn that I directed in 2004 in a chorus role and as the understudy to Sarah Brown. She’s extraordinarily talented, and she did very well in the role last night.)

So, the short version of my Wicked review is: it was a whole lot of fun.

If you want the long version, beware of spoilers, as I’m going to delve deep into the elements of the plot that I found particularly frustrating, which may ruin the show if you want to go in with no preconceptions.

Still here? I warned you.

The plot, at first glance, seems like a tightly-crafted and clever prequel to The Wizard of Oz, but it’s actually pretty sloppy and collapses instantly under the slightest scrutiny.

Simply put, the Wizard-as-Villain’s motivation makes absolutely no sense.

Consider: It seems that the Wizard blew into Oz and was instantly adored as a wonderful savior, so he proceeds to demonize animals and prevent them from speaking. How does he do this, you may ask? Good question, particularly since it’s firmly established that the Wizard is a fraud with no magical power. The better question, though, is why does he do it, and the only answer the show offers is that “the people need an enemy.” In short, the Wizard is only there to provide a ham-handed indictment of George W. Bush’s war policy dressed up as an arbitrary plot gimmick.

You may think I exaggerate, but what else to make of jarringly contemporary references to “regime change” and leaders being either “traitors” or “liberators” based on “what label is able to persist?” The author just assumes that the political purity of the anti-war message compensates for its lack of coherence. It’s a shoddy intellectual shortcut that dates the show needlessly while, at the same time, robbing it of a significant amount of dramatic weight.

And since we’re on the subject of stupid political asides, what are we to make of the lyric in the otherwise cheerful pop confection “Popular,” in which an airheaded Glinda makes the case for popularity over smarts:

Think of Celebrated heads of state
or ‘specially great communicators
Did they have brains or knowledge
Don’t make me laugh
They were popular

Anyone know any head of state other than Ronald Reagan who was labeled “the Great Communicator?” Anybody else wonder what a gratuitous slap at Reagan is doing in the middle of a fantasy piece written almost two decades after his presidency? A veiled Lewinsky joke would be annoying but would make more sense, given the Wizard’s own adulterous proclivities. Better to leave the politics out of it altogether.

Ironically, these stupid political insertions are so clumsy that they’re easy to overlook, and the show moves quickly enough that you don’t have time to linger on the wafer-thin foundation for the plot.

Also, if you’re looking for it to fit with what we already know about The Wizard of Oz, prepare to be disappointed. You’re supposed to assume that everything in Wicked is going on behind the scenes while the original Oz story is taking place, so you’re left wondering why the Scarecrow and Tin Man bother going down the Yellow Brick Road with Dorothy; you’re left puzzling why the witch’s sister is termed the Wicked Witch of the East when she was, instead, a respected governor of Munchkinland, and, most of all, you have no idea why Elphaba is so consumed with getting the stupid ruby slippers back. (One of the big laugh lines in the show is Glinda’s rejoinder to her green friend: “They’re just shoes! Let it go!” It gets a laugh precisely because the reasons for her behavior are so ludicrous.)

The whole show is slightly disjointed, with the overall feel of a rock concert. The songs are hardly traditional Tin Pan Alley ditties – they’re solid pop numbers, most of which would sound right at home on any episode of American Idol. Most of them don’t move the story forward, so the flimsy book has to do that with very little time, and the whole thing feels unnecessarily rushed.

And yet I had a great time. I loved the music; the production design was gorgeous, and the friendship between Glinda and Elphaba felt authentic and was genuinely moving. Glinda did a fine Kristen Chenoweth impression, although it would be nice if it were possible for someone to make that role their own.

Reading this over, it sounds like I didn’t like it. And I did like it. Immensely. A good new musical with hummable tunes doesn’t come down the pike very often. You probably won’t notice the politics or the clumsy plotting as you hum “Defying Gravity” on your way home.

Don’t read the book, though. I tried, and it’s a tedious, self-important Freudian piece of sludge. The musical is much, much better.

Chicago Theatres
Schulz and Peanuts

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