witch, bad witch: Wicked at Proctors Theater.
and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman, directed
by Joe Mantello
Proctors Theatre, through Jan. 3
Nothing fires the energies of your typical American lowbrow
more surely than a figure of Evil, preferably in an austerely
Manichean context. Faux-conservative windbaggery thrives on
thumbnail vilification, and sculpts a steady stream of nogoodniks
to hate. Tagging them, of course, with the label “liberal,”
which is code for “smarter than I’ll ever hope to be.”
Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch is an archetype of evil, eager
to kill in pursuit of footwear, thus assuring herself a permanent
place in populist entertainment.
Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked ingeniously imagined
a backstory for this babe—taking her far from the colorful
but black-and-white characterization we know so well from
the movie—and it’s fitting that this story should get a Broadway
recrafting as well. I’m sure a new movie will follow.
What’s most impressive, however, is the great popularity of
this piece. It’s been a Broadway sellout since it opened six
years ago, and has spawned two national tours, one of which
is spending a few weeks at Proctors. True, the theater audience
tends to be a rarefied bunch, but it’s heartening to see that
a live show can achieve blockbuster status in that context.
I suspect that this production does suitable justice to the
Broadway original, which I haven’t seen. My biggest complaint,
and I’ll get this out of the way right now, is the amplification,
which (as is too often the case) muddies the blend of orchestra
and singers. I don’t know if I’ll go as far as Mark N. Grant
in his excellent study The Rise and Fall of the Broadway
Musical, wherein he names amplification as one of the
main causes of the current mediocrity, because I’ve heard
it done quite acceptably on Broadway of late.
Here, however, when the show kicks into full musical gear,
the rock-accented score loses enough definition to leave the
lyrics unintelligible. Solos, duets and the few moments when
the vocal ensemble goes a cappella remain easy to understand.
That being said, I found most other aspects to be first-rate.
It’s a steller cast, which last Thursday night was led by
standby Carrie Manolakos as Elphaba, who is born green and
socially shunned, and soon dons the familiar conical hat and
begins wreaking spells. (“Something just comes over me sometimes.”)
She’s complemented by Heléne Yorke as the peaches-and-cream
Glinda, who also proves to be not the goody-goody we always
imagined. She’s a self-involved Valley Girl who unexpectedly
becomes friends with Elphaba; by the time they reach their
eleven o’clock number, the affecting duet “For Good,” we’re
seeing a surprisingly complex relationship.
Yorke played Glinda’s affectations for well-deserved laughs,
but Manolakos also did nicely with the more subtle job of
conveying the humanity of a character unsure of herself—until
her end-of-act transformation into the witch we know and love
to hate. Even then she proves to be a more complicated figure.
And the real villain of the piece? The Wizard. Played with
song-and-dance suavity, Don Amendolia reveals a character
who isn’t all that complex. Just mean. His number “A Sentimental
Man” harkens to the novelty songs of old, the kind of thing
Kern and Wodehouse dashed off, but without rising to the lyrical
challenge it really deserved.
That’s my second-biggest complaint: Stephen Schwartz’s score
settles for the too-easy tropes of pop-song tradition when
it could have been working a little harder to flesh out the
characters and situations. It’s the curse of Sondheim, of
course. The bar has been raised awfully high.
But Wicked is also about spectacle, and it delivers
it in Wayne Cilento’s vigorously staged dance numbers performed
by a crack ensemble. They’re costumed in finery imagined by
Susan Hilferty, which, when blended into the colors of Eugene
Lee’s set, is as dazzling as you could hope—especially when
we reach the glowingly emerald Emerald City of Oz.
Other standouts in the cast are Kristine Reese as Elphaba’s
wheelchair-bound sister, David De Vries as the caprine Doctor
Dillamond, and Marilyn Caskey in Margaret Dumont Mode as Madame
Morrible. And there are flying monkeys, stunning set changes
and a high-hung dragon that awakens at unexpected moments.
is a wonderful couple of hours of high- energy theater
that also may make us think twice about just how bad our perceived
villains truly may be.