Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

This evening, Wicked becomes the 20th longest-running show on Broadway, eclipsing Avenue Q which, ironically, beat it out to win the Tony for Best Musical in 2004.

I saw Wicked for the first time in January 2007, on tour, from the mezzanine of the Providence Performing Arts Center. It was the very first show in my very first year of regular theatergoing and I fell in love with it. The cast recording has been in steady rotation on my iPod ever since.

And ever since then, I've yearned to see it on Broadway, at the Gershwin Theatre. Well, this month I finally accomplished that goal.

After 2,535 performances, this show looks and sounds fresh and vibrant. Eugene Lee's Tony-winning set is more elaborate than the touring version, extending out along the sides of the stage. It's easy to see why the musical still plays to sold-out houses every week and over Thanksgiving week, took in a record $2 million at the box office.

Built in the 1970s, the 1,900-seat Gershwin is a modern venue with brilliant acoustics. The sound is crisp and clear. The seats are raked so perfectly that there's never anyone's head blocking your view. From my perch in Row V of the orchestra I could have body-surfed clear down to the stage!

If you're of a certain age, you remember what it was like in those pre-VCR, pre-cable days to watch The Wizard of Oz when it aired on television once a year. (The flying monkeys always terrified me!)

Part of the charm of Wicked is the witty and clever way the musical pays homage to the movie. Yes, it's a different plot - the back story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. But I love all of the subtle and not-so-subtle references to the movie, the way some of its most memorable lines are worked into the dialog.

Book writer Winnie Holzman (of My So-Called Life) has done an inspired job stripping away the complexities of Gregory Maguire's very dark novel - which is not for children - and refashioning it for the stage for audiences from preteen on up.

Maguire uses the Wicked Witch of the West to examine the nature of evil. And Holzman doesn't give short shrift to that aspect, with the story of animals being robbed of their power of speech. This is a musical examining how societies often blame their ills on scapegoats and how too few of us speak out, simply going along with the crowd.

The heart of this musical, though, is the relationship between two very different young women who become college roommates and friends - the rich and pampered Glinda (nee Galinda) and the misunderstood, put-upon Elphaba, mocked and shunned because of her green skin. (Among other things, Wicked is a great examination of how cruel adolescents can be.)

Broadway's current Elphaba and Glinda are Dee Roscioli and Erin Mackey and they're great. As the self-absorbed, ambitious Glinda, Mackey is funny without overshadowing her castmate. And Roscioli gets Elphaba's spunk and social conscience, as well as her feelings of awkwardness and longing to belong, to have her family be proud of her instead of embarrassed by her.

The supporting cast includes Michelle Federer, who originated the role, as Elphaba's wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose, P.J. Benjamin as the mysterious Wizard, Kevin Kern as Fieyro, the carefree prince torn between Glinda and Elphaba, and Alex Brightman as the mousy Munchkin Boq.

But the highlight was seeing Rondi Reed play Madame Morrible, the very proper and sinister headmistress of Shiz University. I loved Reed's Tony-winning performance in August: Osage County. The ease with which she captures such a completely different role - and accent - just furthers my admiration for her.

And I cannot say enough how glorious it was to hear Stephen Schwartz' score - so witty and soaring and poignant and catchy - played by a 22-piece orchestra. "For Good" is my favorite song from the score. I sobbed when I heard it the first time and I sobbed again.

How awesome is it that the most tender, heartfelt love song in this musical is not about the romantic love of two people for each other but about the enduring power of an unlikely friendship.

Since friendship plays such a big role it seems fitting to mention that I saw Wicked for the first time at the encouragement of a new friend, Steve on Broadway, whom I'd only met at that point through his blog and through e-mail.

Eventually I learned how much the musical means to Steve and to the love of his life. They have both become my treasured friends and Wicked has become one of my favorite shows. All three have left a handprint on my heart.

Let me tell you, Wicked on tour is terrific and if you have a chance, go see it. But there is something so special about taking in the tuner at its Broadway home. I'm so happy I finally did.


Dorian said...

I saw the sitdown production in Chicago a couple of years ago (early '07). It was Mackey and Roscioli, and I actually really didn't like them much.

But! It has been nearly three years, so it's very possible they've improved since. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Esther said...

Thanks Dorian! I did enjoy them and of course part of it may have been the thrill of seeing a favorite show on Broadway. My main reason for wanting to see Wicked now rather than later was Rondi Reed. I'm so glad I had that chance.

Anonymous said...

Hi Esther,

I love your blog. I have been attending theater for over 50 years, and I still get excited every time I go. But it is wonderful to hear from a fair newbie at attending theater. I first saw Wicked almost 3 years ago when I took my then 16 year old granddaughter to NYC, where we saw Wicker for her and Chorus Line for me. I loved the production values of the show. This April I will take my two grandsons to NYC, and I already have Wicked tickets, because that was their request - we will also see West Side Story, and Hamlet at the Met opera. I am looking forward to seeing it again. Keep up the great reviews, and have a wonderful holiday season.


Esther said...

Hey Kathy, thanks so much for the comment and the kind words! I really appreciate both.

And wow, what a wonderful grandmother! I saw West Side Story over the summer and really enjoyed it. The music and choreography are so beautiful. Last year I went to my first opera, at the Met. I saw Madama Butterfly and it was a great experience - so theatrical.

Hope you have a great trip to New York. And best wishes for the holidays and the new year.