You can relax, my pretties. The big green money machine known as “Wicked” is in fine shape in the first stop of its national tour. A lot of care has gone into this remount, stripping away only a few extraneous trappings from the Broadway version, but delivering a spectacular-looking show guaranteed to send most auds happily skipping down the yellow brick road to the box office for a long time to come.
Critics are divided on the merits of this tuner, but repeat viewings increase the admiration generated by Winnie Holzman’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s score.
Holzman has taken Gregory Maguire’s rich, dense backstory to “The Wizard of Oz” and delivered most of it to the stage with wit and perception. Maybe it’s seeing the show removed from the world of red and blue states in Canada, but, more than ever, it suddenly seems to be an allegory for life in Bush’s America, where “the way to bring people together is to give them a really good enemy.”
And Schwartz provides a catalog of songs that define character, create mood, generate emotion, or just bring down the house when necessary.
The physical trappings of the show remain equally impressive on the road. Eugene Lee’s giant vision of Oz as a land where clockwork mechanisms remind us time is flying sit beautifully in the 2,300-seat Canon Theater. In fact, it’s the first show to actually look good here since “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1989.
A few pieces of scaffolding are missing and there’s no trap for Elphaba to make one of her dramatic exits, but virtually everything else is intact. Ditto for Susan Hilferty’s costumes, which continue to dazzle, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting, often a show in itself.
Director Joe Mantello, however, has opted not to create a mere carbon copy of the Gotham performances and, ultimately, it’s a canny decision.
Stephanie J. Block is back in fine form as Elphaba after being sidelined by an injury that caused her to miss two previews and pushed back the press date. Block’s witch starts out a sweetly gawky kid who grows in stature and power as the show progresses. Her voice rings out to the rafters when required, but she has a more legit sound than the role’s originator, Idina Menzel, which yields extra dividends in musical and lyrical clarity. By the time she tears into “No Good Deed” in act two, Block has delivered all the colors the part demands.
Kendra Kassebaum has a tough pair of ruby slippers to fill, following in the distinctive path of original Glinda Kristin Chenoweth. Kassebaum has wisely chosen not to imitate Chenoweth’s trademark style and succeeds in delivering a very real and moving perf when the show gets dark in its second half. But she still hasn’t figured out where all the laughs are in the lighter moments of act one. Kassebaum needs to make her take on the role funny as well as different.
David Garrison’s Wizard bears an amazing resemblance to George Dubya, which is surely intentional. He also has a more folksy, genial charm than Joel Grey brought to the original and it’s very welcome. A bit more menace in his darker moments, however, would be a nice addition. Carol Kane is a deliciously creepy Madame Morrible. True, she talks virtually all of her songs, but the characterization is richly detailed and highly droll.
Derrick Williams reconceives Fiyero as the coolest of bros with plenty of street cred. It adds a whole different tone to the role, and also provides an interracial aspect to his romance with the blond Glinda. There’s also some very touching work being done by Jenna Leigh Green as the crippled Nessarose, who’s partnered with munchkin Boq, played adorably by Logan Lipton.
The large ensemble’s work is uniformly strong, giving full value to Wayne Cilento’s choreography as well as Schwartz’s songs.
The Toronto and Chicago runs are totally sold-out, a sit-down run is planned for the Windy City and the advances are strong in San Francisco and Los Angeles. With some fine-tuning to a handful of perfs, there’s no reason to doubt this tour of “Wicked” will duplicate the show’s amazing success on Broadway and continue to prove that there is life after Oz.