The return to Winnipeg of the touring musical Wicked — the untold story of a misunderstood witch of colour — convincingly confirms that its appeal is evergreen.
A repeat viewing at the Centennial Concert Hall after a three-year interval has not altered the appreciation for this complete — and completely satisfying — stage spectacle, featuring flying monkeys, a soaring score and airborne witches.
Wicked delivers dazzle and depth with a tale that is moving, funny and timely. The only disappointment came before Thursday night’s show, when it was learned that star Laurel Harris was off sick with a sinus infection and her understudy, Alyssa Fox, would go on as the emerald-hued wicked witch Elphaba. Fox’s stellar performance, however, only raised curiosity about how Harris could be any better.
In his 1995 book, novelist Gregory Maguire spun off L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to give the future Wicked Witch of the West a history, focusing on her friendship with Glinda the Good Witch in the land of Oz before Dorothy dropped in.
The story gradually meets up with the Wizard of Oz, with scenes reminiscent of the 1939 movie. Along the way, the movie’s fans get answers to several questions, including how Elphaba came to wear the distinctive, all-black costume and pointy hat, where her green skin came from, and how the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow found themselves wanting.
But at its essence, Wicked is a buddy story about schoolmates Elphaba, with her smarts, magical powers and a cauldron-sized chip on her shoulder caused by her frightening appearance, and Galinda (her pre-witch name), who is, in sharp contrast, the fairest of them all (as well as ditsy, spoiled and blondfully ambitious).
One of the heartfelt moments of the evening finds a young Elphaba, not so comfortable in her green skin, defiantly alone on the dance floor at the Ozdust Ballroom, making spastic moves reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Elaine while her contemptuous fellow students snicker. She is saved from her moment of crushing awkwardness and loneliness when Glinda tentatively joins her and they take their first clumsy steps towards friendship. Elphaba becomes a hero for many young girls because they can empathize with the way her parents rejected her and schoolmates shunned her.
Fox possesses the big mezzo-soprano voice that Elphaba needs, and she brought down the house with her signature numbers The Wizard and I, Everest and Defying Gravity, the first-act climax that sends the audience into intermission wowed.
She also proved that she can dial down her feminist passion and display vulnerability in the haunting musical gem I’m Not That Girl, which expresses a sentiment many in the audience can sadly identify with.
Right from the moment the beaming Galinda floats onstage in her metal bubble with the greeting, "It’s so good to see me, isn’t it," she is perky perfection. She’s right; it is always good to see her onstage during the almost three-hour evening. Kara Lindsay brings real comic magic to the irresistible tune Popular, in which she wiggles, sashays and flounces in her attempt to make over Elphaba.
Kathy Fitzgerald makes Madame Morrible marvelously malevolent, while Matt Shingledecker’s heroic Fiyero is far more three-dimensional than the previously seen incarnation of the character. Understudy Lauren Haughton, as the tragic Nessarose, also puts a grittier edge on what always seems a thankless role.
Lee Slobotkin is an appealing Munchkin Boq, whose tortured heart leads to a surprising and familiar development. Gene Weygandt’s ethically challenged Wizard of Oz is both fatherly and, when he has to be, menacing.
Visually, Wicked is a wonder, starting with Eugene Lee’s Victorian steampunk set, which suggests the inside of a giant clock. The smoke-breathing, red-eyed dragon looming over the stage is impressive but otherwise irrelevant. Susan Hilferty’s whimsical costumes appear to be a cross between Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss, while Kenneth Posner’s lighting adds to the eye candy even in quiet moments, as when a slanted rain falls on a despondent Elphaba.
Stephen Schwartz’s rich and catchy score holds Wicked all together, although the first act’s numbers are far superior. An accepted measure of a good musical is whether patrons leave humming any of the songs; on the way out Thursday night, it sounded like the peppy Popular was the clear crowd favourite.