Ever since I caught a couple of numbers from Wicked on the 2004 Tony Awards, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the show live in person. I missed it when it came to Toronto the first time, but I was able to catch the touring company on its return to town this fall. It definitely exceeded my already high expectations from having enjoyed the CD soundtrack for the last couple of years. The lead performances by both actresses as the Good and Wicked witches (Megan Hilty and Shoshana Bean respectively) were outstanding; and the sets, costumes, and theatrical effects were exciting and spectacular.
Simply characterized as a “prequel to the Wizard of Oz”, Wicked tells the story of Elphaba, a green-skinned loner of a girl who would eventually become the Wicked Witch of the West (the one who torments little Dorothy and her three travelling companions). Intertwined with Elphaba’s story is the story of Galinda (who eventually becomes the bubble-riding Glinda, Good Witch of the North). Adapted from a novel, the show starts off in their boarding school days where the two become accidental roommates and discover their mutual loathing (there’s a great song about that). Elphaba is kind of a social outcast and the butt of teasing from the popular kids, but Galinda is the blonde, rich, and super-popular yet ditzy teen princess. After their initial friction, they begin to bond and eventually become lifelong best friends (even despite the inevitable love triangle involving new dreamy-boy Fiyero).
Though it all sounds like trite teen melodrama (the stuff that you’d expect to see from Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan), the show actually flits onto many more serious themes as well, including discrimination, racism, terrorism, animal rights, celebrity politics, ambition, loyalty, integrity, love and friendship. (Whew, what a mouthful!). In a short span, you can really see the characters mature as they tackle the crises and issues that come at them. (Now I’m making it sound too heavy.) There is a lot of humour in the show as well, and the soulful, tragic ballads are outnumbered by festive, happy tunes.
The music is definitely a large part of what makes the show great. Sometimes musicals contain maybe only a handful of good tunes that get reused in variations throughout the show. Composer Stephen Schwartz has created so many memorable, catchy and warm-hearted melodies for Wicked that there is very little need for recycling. Highlights for me include “Popular” (Galinda’s dissertation on how popularity rules the world and how to achieve it), “What is this feeling?” (the previously-mentioned song where the two girls discover common ground in their mutual dislike—it’s one of those excellent musical dialogue-duets where both characters sing simultaneously), and “Defying Gravity” (Elphaba’s triumphant declaration that she’s going to soar with her heart and beliefs no matter what anyone thinks—the number includes an awesome effect of Elphaba levitating high into the night sky). There are a few weak songs (including a Vaudeville-style song from the Wizard himself), but the best thing about shows is that musical deficiencies can be overcome with spectacle (which definitely redeemed the showy “One Short Day (in the Emerald City)”).
Though most of the really memorable tunes are used up by the second half, that’s when the story really kicks into high gear. The most unexpected surprise about this show is how well it works as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Everything from the iconic black witch’s hat; the origin of the flying monkeys and the scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion; how Elphaba gets her powers; what caused the tornado that brought Dorothy to Oz; and what happened when she poured the water on the Wicked Witch are all plausibly and carefully accounted for in this prequel (Take that, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith!). Because the connections are made in such a well-thought-out manner, it was exciting to anticipate the upcoming events but see them from a completely different angle (you know I love that). At the back of my mind nagged the question, “How are they going to explain what happens next?” and when the answer was something fresh and intriguing, it made me appreciate the show even more.
Overall, I haven’t enjoyed a show as much as this one in a while. If you like this kind of thing and get the chance, you should definitely check it out… (I wonder if they’re going to make a movie out of Wicked. I sure hope so, but until they do I’ll probably be popping the CD into the player a few more times). (4.5 out of 5)