Saturday, December 23, 2017

Still Wonderfully 'Wicked': Always Enchanting, the Musical Now Feels All the More Resonant...and Bewitching -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 21, 2018

Wicked has been such a phenomenon, it almost feels passé.

The imaginative prequel to The Wizard of Oz, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, with music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, has been running on Broadway since October 2003.

That's nearly 6,000 performances, and week-in, week-out, Wicked seems to attract over 14,000 ticket buyers in New York, the most of any show on Broadway. (It's in a larger theater than Hamilton, The Lion King or anything else.)

In Chicago, following an initial 2005 tour stop, the show "sat down" at the Oriental Theatre for a full 3-1/2 years, until January 2009.

But in returning to the Oriental, in 2013 and now for a 6-week run, Wicked has remained tremendously "Popular," to cite one of the show's most, um, best-known songs. When I saw it last Tuesday night, if the cavernous, resplendent theater wasn't sold out, it was darn close.

Having seen Wicked seven previous times--including on Broadway with Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Joel Grey, Norbert Leo Butz and other original cast members--it could seem possible for yet another reprise to feel not that special.

But not only did this full-Equity touring rendition of Wicked reiterate that the show ranks high among my favorite musicals of the 21st century and of all-time--though it, correctly, lost the 2004 Best New Musical Tony Award to Avenue Q--its principal themes feel more resonant than ever.

Several humorous references to The Wizard of Oz--a work born in Chicago, first as a book and then a stage piece--will always make for much of the Wicked fun, but as I joked as the show ended, one could probably write a thesis about all the powerful and poignant messages and lessons to be found within.

The ostracization and insecurities felt by the green-skinned Elphaba--destined to become the Wicked Witch of the West and well-played & wonderfully-sung here by Mary Kate Morrissey--have always spoken to anyone who has ever felt quite imperfect or like an outcast, but overamplified recent vitriol against Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, refugees, LGBTQ individuals and others adds to the show's debunking of hatred toward those largely just cosmetically different from us.

That the bright, sunny and popular future Good Witch Glinda (a fine Ginna Claire Mason) also faces not only self-doubt and romantic despair, but outright derision from powerful men (and women) feels quite contemporary at a time when many are falling from grace due to chauvinistic and/or predatory misdeeds and even, perhaps, insultingly incendiary tweets.

That despite their differences and initial loathing--as per "What Is This Feeling?" early in Act I--Glinda and Elphaba become friends also made me think about how we don't really know anybody, or what he/she might be going through, until we take the time to find out.

So along with some really terrific songs by Stephen Schwartz--including "Dancing Through Life" sung by the princely Fiyero (Jon Robert Hall), "I'm Not That Girl," cleverly voiced by both lead women at separate junctures, the powerful "Defying Gravity," the reflective "For Good"--there is much to be appreciated in Holzman's script about self-empowerment, self-esteem, the championing of one's individuality, woman power, the danger of demigods and much else.

And even this far down the yellow brick road, this tour feels as good as ever--at least since the Broadway original.

In addition to Morrissey, Mason and Hall being strong as Elphaba, Glinda and Fiyero, the cast features a true Broadway luminary in Judy Kaye (as Madame Morrible), recognizable TV vet Tom McGowan as The Wizard and two-time Tony nominee Robin de Jesus as Boq.

Catherine Charlebois (Nessarose) and Harry Bouvy (Doctor Dillamond) round out the principal cast members, though the whole ensemble is quite strong.

While Wicked remains tremendously popular on Broadway, its currency and cachet have seemingly been usurped by The Book of Mormon, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and whatever is the newest, hottest musical.

And on my train ride home Tuesday night, the couple sitting across from me had Hamilton Playbills.

In Chicago, too, in 2017, it's a far buzzier show than Wicked.

But one of the true tests of great art is staying power, including the depth to become even more potently relevant across changing times.

So I make no apologies for still being completely captivated by Wicked, which long past having the most sizzling pizazz, remains a bewitching--and ever contemporary--musical, very much "For Good."

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