Bottom Line: Very few will walk away from this production without a smile on their face.
Wicked is a Tony Award winning musical that, for all its Broadway accolades and bona fides, had its start in the colonies (i.e., San Francisco in 2003 when it previewed at the Curran Theatre). The story, a retelling of the Wizard of Oz tale from the perspective of Elphaba (The Witch of the West) and Glinda (The Witch of the North) in a way that introduces moral ambiguity into their relationship and slyly flips the preconceived notions of the lead characters on its head. In short, Glinda the Good is not always good, and Elphaba’s wicked ways are anything but.
In this two act production, the story begins with the news that Elphaba is dead and that Glinda was rumoured to be be friends with her years ago. Glinda does not deny that they knew each other, but she masks their friendship by saying that their ”paths crossed.” After that, the story flashes backward in time to when the two of them met at college, initially despised each other, how they became accidental room mates, vied for the same man, became friends, and eventually parted ways after Elphaba was tricked by the Wizard and Madame Morrible (the headmistress of the the college the girls attend) to unleash her magical powers by chanting spells from an ancient book than no one but Elphaba can properly read. Once Elphaba realizes the Wizard’s trickery, that his power is based on smoke and mirrors, and that he is using her abilities for his own nefarious designs, she runs away with the magical book and is quickly branded an enemy of the state (i.e.,”wicked”), and all of Oz descends into a kind of hyper militancy and paranoia over The Big Bad that Elphaba has become (Shades of post-9/11 fear of The Other abound). The resolution of the play comes with Elphaba and Glinda reaffirming their friendship, sacrifices made by both characters for the greater good of Oz, and a surprisingly happy ending for a rather dark and misunderstood character in the Oz mythology.
The production at the Orpheum Theatre was on a grand scale with large ornate sets that had clock gears as a recurring theme, a mechanical dragon that often shook and blew smoke from the top of the theater, wonderful lighting effects, and costumes that had an Edwardian vibe with an explosion of color. But even with all of the over the top flourishes, the sets and special effects never dwarfed the performances of the actors — which were all top notch.
The staging of Wicked I saw had stand-ins for many of the lead characters. Kendra Kassebaum and Teal Wicks — both of whom played Glinda and Elphaba in the touring production of Wicked in other cities — had the night off, so Natalie Daradich and Vicki Noon filled in and both did a superb job. Indeed, Noon as Elphaba was less menacing on the ovation-inducing numbers like ”The Wizard and I” and Daradich was less southern belle and more preppy airhead co-ed in her wonderfully comedic performance as Glinda. I’ve seen Kassebaum and Wicks performing their characters on You Tube and maybe it was just the magic of live theater, but Daradich and Noon were every bit as good (if not better) than the leads they filled in for.
If there was fault to be found in this production, it would be the running time of the musical. Midway through the second act, the production started to drag with too many songs that did very little to move the plot forward. Another problem was the paucity of dialogue. I know it’s a musical, but do the characters always have to break into song only after a few minutes of dialogue? If it was just a couple scenes in the play, that would be one thing, but the songs just kept coming one after another with nary a moment to rest and get caught up in the dynamics of the characters.
Perhaps I’m not the right demographic for this production, since this musical is clearly designed to appeal the broadest possible audience, so my desire for more character exposition in a production like Wicked is not needed for its intended audience. The emphasis on the songs — which all too often are written for maximum emotional appeal — means the principle characters are often required to belt the songs in a way that demands the audience sit up and take notice of the talent on stage. For me, there was no need to hammer that point home, but it seems the producers of this musical know better since Wicked is just cleaning up at the box office and thrilling the crowds who come night after night.
The San Francisco show was supposed to end a couple of times, but every time it was announced the play was closing, people would rush to the theater and, well, money talks and the production stayed put. I’m not sure how long SHN is going to keep the Wicked in The City, but once they fold up their proverbial tent and head off to another city, they certainly won’t have any trouble filling the seats. After all, the songs are catchy, the sets have the right amount of eye candy, and the actors are allowed, nay, required to really bring it night after night. Clearly it’s a recipe for success that has been paying dividends for years. But beyond all the crass money-making machinations that goes into a big production like this, is the reality of the effect Wicked has on its audience. Simply put, it’s pop-U-lar, and from the look I saw on many people leaving the theater, it’s also magic.
Wicked at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco, CA. Showtimes are Tuesday – Sunday at 8:00 pm , Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00pm (Check Tickemaster as the matinee performance dates alternate). The play runs 2 hours and 45 minutes (with a 15 minute intermission). Tickets range from $99 to $40 and are available at Ticketmaster or from SHNSF.