I saw Wicked the Musical in Chicago last night at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre. Man that’s an amazing place. The detail on the walls and ceiling takes your breath away.
I’ve wanted to see Wicked for a couple of years. Naturally, they’ve run commercials here frequently, since it’s local. My kid is in theater and I don’t think I can count on even two hands the number of times I’ve heard an audition with a Wicked song, namely “Popular.” If you don’t know, Wicked is the fairly modern backstory of the witches in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book, “The Wizard of Oz.” Wicked is a more grown up story, since it involves several romantic relationships, but it’s fine for kids. Dorothy appears in Wicked in silhouette and only in the scene where she throws water on the witch (a scene recently recreated by Heather Mills at her divorce trial).
The tagline could probably be, “Forget everything you know about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Of course, we’re readily pulled through the explanation about how the Witches of the East and North were once good friends and we can buy the explanation of how the Wicked Witch of the West was born green and easily imagine how that made her angry. Harder to buy is how nothing in the final act of the movie I’ve seen many times is what it seems. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and perhaps the Lion all have hidden agendas and allegiances. The ownership of the castle isn’t what it seems. I’m not even sure the timeline fits, with the house flying overhead and the Wicked Witch of the West running from one place to the other.
Okay, but does it matter? Well, maybe. Part of the fun or perhaps work of Wicked is to fit the familiar story with this very elaborate backstory. Frankly, it was a little hard to accept tinkering with familiar characters.
Well, let’s forget the story and move on to Wicked as pure musical. It is a lot of fun—Glinda in particular. If I were in the role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, I’d be jealous of the blonde airhead-when-she-wants-to-be. So many funny lines and great songs. By contrast, Elphaba starts out sort of glum, homely, and withdrawn. She doesn’t really have a chance at overshadowing Glinda until, at the end of the first act, she takes to the air and ascends to the top of the stage with what appears to be a cape the size of the stage opening behind her. You won’t be seeing that in the 2015 Peoria Community Theater rendition.
What excites me about theater at this level is the technology. I don’t mean to take anything away from the awesome performances, but the scene changes are so fluid. Everything just seems to move on it’s own. I frankly worried about the actors getting clobbered by being in the wrong spot at the wrong time. This show also boasts a large Wizard head puppet, a dragon puppet that hangs over the opening of the stage, a high bridge, and a large “cage” wall for the monkeys to crawl on. Speaking of monkeys, the first appearance of their wings happens as we watch.
But, you know, for all the technology, it still comes down to voice and acting and movement and connecting with the audience. There are several moments where it’s just one of the leads in a circle of light. And that’s beautiful.
Finally, I’d like to say that my kid’s theater program, a quality endeavor on it’s own, has one particular thing to boast over. The stage is probably the same size and we can fill it with nearly three times as many actors. Every show has kids running up and down the aisles. We can’t fly anyone at our theater, but there are moments in every show that just really connect with people. It’s a great thing to experience.