Two Powerful Women

'Wicked' is a spectacle that captivates and wows

Something Wicked has this way come.

The globally popular musical, with book by Winnie Holzman and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, has blown into Tucson, and it will reside at UA's Centennial Hall through Jan. 23.

For those who rave about this brassy and produced-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life show, come on down; you will not be disappointed with the road-show version on display here. The cast is top-notch, and the orchestra, set and costumes are fully realized. This is not a pared-down, made-to-tour replica.

On the other hand, those who are curious but prone to being uncomfortably over-stimulated might think twice before seeking out those few pricey tickets remaining.

Perhaps the most elaborate backstory in the history of tale-telling, Wicked was inspired by Gregory Maguire's popular novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The book is a fantasy which recounts the history and politics of the land of Oz—yes, that Oz—long before Dorothy and Toto, ahem, dropped in. In particular, it is the story of Elphaba, a bright, gifted young woman who eventually—and arguably unfairly—becomes known as the Wicked Witch of the West. The musical is not true to the book in numerous ways, but they share enough common elements to make Mr. Maguire an even richer man than the success of his novel made him.

In the play, it's the good witch, Glinda, who is really at the core of the show. (Her given name was Galinda, but she changes it during the course of the story.) If there were any doubts that the character might not hold her own against the powerful Elphaba, the actress Kristin Chenoweth, who originated the role on Broadway, put that fear to rest with what was by most accounts a surprisingly brilliant embodiment. Here, Natalie Daradich puts her own charming spin on the annoying, beautiful, shallow and utterly likable Glinda, while Vicki Noon brings strength, virtue and a great voice to her portrayal of Elphaba.

The play begins as the citizens of Munchkinland are celebrating the death of the Wicked Witch. In a cloud of bubbles, Glinda floats gracefully into the scene—nestled in her own mechanical bubble—and shares with the Munchkins the whole story of how these things came to be.

Elphaba and Glinda met at sorcery school and, through a weird twist, wound up as roommates, to their mutual horror. Elphaba, because of her green skin, great intelligence and peculiar social skills, was an outcast at school, as she had always been. However, the two form an odd but sturdy friendship.

As the political climate in Oz grows murky, Elphaba determines to have a talk with the Wizard, and off she goes in search of him—although she's not following a yellow brick road. When she discovers the Wizard to be a construct of wires and circuits—and not someone to be feared or respected—Elphaba determines that she must intervene. She discovers and embraces her mighty magical powers, which she intends to use for the good.

But you can bet a powerful green woman, no matter her intentions, is going to have a rough time. And so it comes to pass for Elphaba.

Schwartz, who gave us Pippin and Godspell, hits pay dirt with several of the musical numbers. Daradich is delightful as she sings what it means to be "Popular." Noon touches us with her "I'm Not That Girl." And in the Act 1 finale, Noon soars, quite literally, in a powerful "Defying Gravity."

Holzman's book is a tangle of themes. There's friendship and being true to oneself; classism; the relativity of good and evil; romantic love; the source of true power; the pain of being different; the nature of true beauty; political corruption; and the need to look at things in new ways. Of course, it's not possible to develop all of these ideas here with any meaningful depth; they mostly serve to give an illusion of depth. It's sort of nice that there was at least some consideration of bringing a bit of heft to the mix, but we're not going to find ourselves transformed by the ideas floating around onstage like Glinda's bubbles.

Not to be outdone by the thoughtful side of things, the production design is jam-packed with constantly morphing sets by Eugene Lee, special lighting effects by Kenneth Posner, and wildly inventive costumes by Susan Hilferty. Wicked has it all; it's truly an all-out assault on the senses, incorporating just about every trick in the book in this relatively new age of high-tech theater. It seems that the intention was to exploit every cool techno-trick possible, though not always discriminatingly. There's a boundary at which the spectacular becomes merely spectacle, where effects don't necessarily support the story, but overwhelm it. Sometimes, less really is more.

But no matter; Wicked wows. Whatever it is and isn't, it certainly does entertain us.

It's interesting to speculate about why it has captured the imaginations and hearts of audiences around the world. I'm wondering if it might be this: Wicked is that rare beast, a story about two powerful women—women who clash but compromise and who, in spite of pressure to oppose one another, ultimately respect each other's differences and show us that there's room in the world for all kinds of folks.

I'd gladly see that story again.

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