SALT LAKE CITY — “You have to give people what they want,” says the Wizard during the first act of Wicked. It’s good artistic advice, and few people are better at taking it than the creative team behind Wicked, led by composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Winnie Holzman. Their musical—the biggest Broadway hit of the 21st century—is a big, flashy, musical extravaganza that reminded me why musicals are the most popular type of live theatre today.
Wicked is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Adapted from a novel by Gregory Maguire, it tells story of Glinda—the Good Witch of the North—and Elphaba—the Wicked Witch of the West—and the events leading up to Dorothy’s arrival in Oz. During the course of the play, the audience learns the backstories of the two witches, the Tinman, and other characters in the beloved Frank L. Baum story.
Alli Mauzey stars in the national tour of the play as Glinda, an incredibly self-absorbed brat. Mauzey played up Glinda’s insecurities beautifully and made it clear (even when her character wasn’t the center of attention in a scene) that Glinda needed constant validation. Glinda was appropriately grating and shallow in the first act, which made her a character I loved to hate. But in the second act, Mauzey excelled at showing how Glinda was changing and growing as she learned that there were more important things in life than herself (such as in the cornfield scene). This made the resolution to the play particularly satisfying. As an added bonus, Mauzey was excellent at milking the humor in her character’s flaws, especially during “Popular.”
Nicole Parker’s portrayal of Elphaba was deep and conflicted. Through subtle acting choices (such as in the scene when Nessarose reveals that she will be attending a party), Parker created a character who was torn between two desires: a need to fit in, and a desire to be true to herself. Parker’s Elphaba at first wallowed in self-pity for a few scenes, as was especially evident in Parker’s body language. In her early scenes, Elphaba was almost demure and defensive in how she carried herself (such as in the first scene at the school and in her dorm). But in later scenes—like in her scenes with the wizard—Parker made it clear that her character was the most powerful and important person on the stage in every scene. She strutted about the stage, yielding to no one, and exuded an air of authority.
The supporting cast was also fascinating to watch throughout the play. Andy Kelso was believable as Fiyero, the most eligible bachelor in Oz, and I could see why both Elphaba and Glinda would want him to fall in love with them. But Kelso also capitalized on the character development given to his character as he changed from shiftless playboy to principled man of action (especially in the cornfield scene). I also enjoyed the performance of Justin Brill as Boq. Brill was stiffly awkward when around Glinda, and it was blindly obvious that Boq had a crush on her. Later, as Boq realized that his feelings were not being reciprocated, Brill communicated clearly to me his character’s growing cynicism.
Joe Mantello’s direction was skilful and doubtlessly a major component to Wicked‘s staying power. The complex story with its shifting scenes (such as during “Dancing Through Life”) was not difficult for me to follow. Moreover, Mantello packed the show with revealing little bits of stage business that shed light on the characters’ psychology. I enjoyed, for example, how the other students at Shiz (the school in the play) gossiped about Elphaba when she was on stage. Mantello also helped the actors cultivate deep, moving friendships, such as during “As Long as Your Mine,” through unconventional blocking choices and a focus on the lyrics and words in the script. Another important contribution to the production came from Wayne Cilento, whose musical staging felt like a worthy member of the great musical theatre tradition of dance, especially during “What Is This Feeling?” and “One Short Day.” However, I was disappointed with “Dancing Through Life,” which had many lifts and turns that were sloppily executed, and the dancers were often out of sync with each other. But I loved how the sophistication and chic of Emerald City was abundantly clear in the way that the cast members moved and danced in the scenes that took place there.
My only prior exposure to the play was through listening to the Broadway cast recording. While not a bad score by any means, I never understood while listening to it why Wicked was a superhit. (The score isn’t as strong as some of Schwartz’s other work, such as Children of Eden.) However, I now understand that the script of Wicked is incredibly brilliant, and perhaps the biggest reason why Wicked has been so successful. The character development is genuine, and the themes that Holzman’s script wrestles with are deep and probing—including the origin of evil, the value of myth, bigotry, and more. I have rarely been so interested in the inner psychology of musical theatre characters.
Finally, Wicked is a visual feast. The costumes (designed by Susan Hilferty) constantly communicated to me that this play took place in a different world. The exaggerated hemlines and shoulders in Oz were especially innovative, and they contributed to the fantastical setting of the story. The lighting (designed by Kenneth Posner) was breathtaking during “Defining Gravity” and “No Good Deed,” and both songs were heightened by the mood that the lights contributed to. I also adored Eugene Lee’s sets, many of which had a clock motif. In addition to being visually interesting, I feel like this motif was strongly supported by the script’s flashback format and pertinent lines in the play, like when Elphaba said, “I would do anything to turn back the clock.” I also felt like the clocks and gears emphasized the intricate nature of the façade of the Oz regime and how Elphaba could easily disrupt the sinister tranquility that persisted in Oz.
Yes, I fell under the spell of Wicked. It’s a brilliant musical and one deserving of its persistence in the popular culture. This is the second—and hopefully not last—visit that this tour has made to Salt Lake City. If you can catch it before it leaves town at the end of next month, consider yourself fortunate.
Bonus: Check out this video from the arrival of the Wicked national tour team in Salt Lake City and their preparations for their first Utah performance.
*The Capitol Theater is also having drawings for $25 orchestra seats for each performance. To enter, arrive at the Capitol Theater 2 1/2 hours before curtain time. Thirty minutes later, the drawing will occur; patrons must be present to win and have valid photo ID.