Every half-decade or so, a piece of musical theater comes along that achieves popularity far out of proportion to its actual merits. These aren’t “bad” shows per se, but flawed works that are blessed with an inexplicably rabid fan base – typically pop-opera pastiche filled with attractive post-adolescents confronting authoritarian oppression through angsty anthems. The 1990s poster child for this phenomenon is Rent, Jonathan Larson’s alt-rock paean to Soho bohemianism, which is finally limping off the B’way boards long after its youthful exuberance curdled into stunt-casting somnambulism. Earlier examples of the genre include Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar (which returns to town in June with star Ted Neeley, who has now been playing Jesus for longer than Jesus lived). And lest you label me an elitist, I’ll confess a high-school obsession with Les Miz’s string-slathered Euro-pop and pompous/prosaic lyrics.
The generational hunger for an accessible show that can hook teens on a lifelong love of theater has been sated for the millennials by Wicked, Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s phenomenally profitable musicalization of Gregory Maguire’s novel. In case you’ve been living under a Kansas farmhouse for the last five years, Wicked details the uneasy friendship between the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North from the beloved Oz stories. As this prequel has it, Elphaba (a name derived from original author L. Frank Baum’s initials) is a Kermit-colored curmudgeon who is packed off to Hogwarts-like Shiz University as the chaperone to her wheelchair-bound sister. There she plays reluctant roomie to bubbleheaded social climber Galinda (later she decides “the ‘Gah’ is silent” and her name is pronounced “Glinda”). Under the tutorage of malapropism-prone “headshiztress” Madame Morrible (who looks like Professor McGonagall and sneers like Snape), Elphaba hones her magical talents in hopes of meeting the Wizard of Oz. But after she discovers her idol is a not-so-wonderful despot, the fallout finds Elphaba and Glinda on opposite sides of a war for the Emerald City’s soul.
When I first saw the Broadway production in January 2005, my enjoyment was burdened by high expectations born of rhapsodic reviews from relatives and the 15-month wait for tickets. Leading lady Idina Menzel did not disappoint, despite being obviously out of sorts (she injured herself falling through a trap door the next night, and exited the show shortly thereafter). But beyond the impressively opulent technical designs and a few undeniably catchy songs, I found the show slow and self-important.
Imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying the touring company currently installed at the Carr Performing Arts Centre more than the NYC production. The set, a mechanized monument to Belle Époque fascism, has been translated nearly intact, including a faux-proscenium topped with an animatronic “time dragon.” Perhaps it was the slightly scaled-down size or my marginally better seats, but everything appeared tighter and more focused, particularly Kenneth Posner’s dramatic lighting and Elaine J. McCarthy’s sinuous projections. Even the sound mix, usually the Carr’s Achilles’ heel, rendered lyrics more intelligibly than the Gershwin. The only real signs of road-company reduction – thinned ranks of Oz’s citizenry, a restricted flight path for the flying monkeys – are understandable economies that only hard-core devotees will notice.
What struck me most while watching Act One was how much funnier I found the show upon second viewing. As Glinda, Katie Rose Clarke (B’way’s The Light in the Piazza) goes for broke with manic mugging, particularly during the crowd-pleasing “Popular,” but her glam goofiness comes across as less abrasive than originator Kristin Chenoweth’s. Carmen Cusack matches Menzel note-for-high-note on showstoppers like “The Wizard and I” and “Defying Gravity,” but without her predecessor’s outsized personality she’s able to invest Elphaba with needed vulnerability. Unfortunately, Act Two reminded me of what I disliked in the first place – a muddled, meandering plot that jettisons its literary source material in favor of synergizing with the 1939 Judy Garland film, and a repetitive score that reaches its synth-schlock nadir with the insipid love ballad “As Long as You’re Mine.” And if you are a fan of Maguire’s notoriously dense political tale, be forewarned that little of it remains beyond character names and a few plot points.
All that carping is irrelevant to the Wicked faithful vying for rush tickets to the sold-out performances. (A $25 per seat lottery is held at the box office two and a half hours prior to show time.) With its globally identifiable characters and extravagant effects, the production is more theme-park attraction than work of art. In fact, an abbreviated edition is already running at Universal Studios Japan, with book and lyrics partially translated into Japanese to amusing effect. By paring the bloated show down to its core characters and best songs, Universal created a CliffsNotes condensation that actually improves on the original. Hopefully they’ll bring it to their stateside parks sooner rather than later: Anything would be better than enduring another viewing of Fear Factor Live.firstname.lastname@example.org