The Broadway in Louisville production of the smash hit “Wicked” opened Thursday at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. The Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical depicts the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good, polar opposite witches from the classic tale “The Wizard of Oz,” as schoolgirls struggling with their ambitions, convictions and loyalty in an oppressive political climate.
The musical is based on Gregory Maguire’s novel of the same name, with music and lyrics by Stephen (“Pippin”) Schwartz and book by Winnie (“My So-Called Life”) Holzman, a master of verbally-dexterous teen speak. The musical opened on Broadway in 2003 (where it still runs in the Gershwin Theatre) and won three Tony Awards, nine Drama Desk Awards and the 2005 Grammy Award for best musical show album.
The story begins with residents of Oz celebrating the death (“No One Mourns the Wicked”) of the Wicked Witch of the West (Christine Dwyer) under the uneasy leadership of Glinda the Good (Jeanna de Waal), who then flashes back to their days together at Shiz University, where brainy Elphaba, as she was known, and popular Galinda (the name change came later) were unlikely roommates and rivals for the attention of the dashing Fiyero (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and the imperious headmistress Madame Morrible (Marilyn Caskey). Elphaba’s sister Nessarose (Catherine Charlebois), later of ruby slipper fame, is wheelchair bound, and Elphaba has to reconcile her life-long role as Nessa’s caregiver with her own ambitions at school.
Even if – or especially if – you’ve seen “Wicked” before, catch this production before the run at the Kentucky Center ends on September 30. Dwyer and de Waal are spectacular as Elphaba and Glinda, and both fans and neophytes alike will appreciate all that they bring to the stage.
Director Joe Mantello’s “Wicked” remains a visually stunning show, from the gorgeous steampunk-infused movable Dragon Time Clock set (Eugene Lee), to the quirky, multi-colored, –layered and –textured costumes (Susan Hilferty), makeup and hair. Yes, both witches defy gravity in their own way. Schwartz’s award-winning songs hit all the right emotional notes at each pivotal point in the narrative, and the ensemble and supporting cast are all at the top of their form.
With an overall effect that’s equal parts spectacle and heart, the degree to which individual performers can make or break a show of this quality is minute, but significant.
Landing a starring role in a tour as beloved as “Wicked” is a curious thing for a performer. On one hand, you don’t really have to worry about reception – especially for a musical like “Wicked,” which continues to break house records on Broadway and has toured successfully for years. They’re going to like you (really, really like you!), because you’re playing largely to an audience that already knows and loves the show. But there’s the double edge.
Elphaba and Galinda are amazing roles – vocally demanding and emotionally rich, and the love triangle in this story is very much secondary to the complex friendship between two girls who grow up to become the most powerful women in Oz. The characters are idiosyncratic, multi-faceted and still deeply associated with their originating (and incredibly distinctive) performers, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth.
For another actress to give a unique interpretation of either character is to walk a very fine line between giving a passionate audience of “Wicked” fans what they expect and continuing to infuse a beloved character with new spirit and energy. It’s difficult to quantify exactly what Dwyer and de Waal bring to their roles other than the requisite vocal chops and acting ability. Both have an extra helping of charisma, and together they have chemistry, the kind that creates extra sparks that can’t be created or enhanced by special effects.
My job is to watch a show and explain how and why it works (or fails). I can’t exactly explain why Dwyer and de Waal are so compelling as Elphaba and Galinda, but they are. Maybe it’s because both actresses bring to light the traits Elphaba and Galinda share – ambition, intelligence, wit, fierce loyalty – and downplay their superficial differences in a subtle but very effective manner. But it’s also in how they manage to turn the tables on their expected significant characteristics. Dwyer’s thousand-watt grin is simply dazzling, while de Waal’s eyes brim with soul and unrealized yearning for meaning and purpose. By the end of the second act, when Elphaba and Glinda sing “because I knew you / I have been changed for good,” it’s not just a line. It’s written on their faces in a way that is wholly theirs, unlike any other duo to play these roles. Does it sound like alchemy? A little. But it works.