Stage Review: Wicked

wickedJust caught the Saturday matinee performance of WICKED at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. This is the touring production of the hit Broadway musical, which opened here yesterday, Friday, June 17.

The lavish production is absolutely stunning, and the Pantages is the perfect theatre for it (the intricately adorned interior looks a bit like Oz all on its own). The stage includes a wonderful mechanical dragon above the curtain that flaps his wings and waves his head from time to time; and the lighting effects and set stages are amazing.

The play itself is a prequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ, at least in its first act; Act Two takes a sort of ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD approach, showing us new scenes that take place supposedly off-scene during the events of WIZARD.

In effect, this revisionist take on the Wicked Witch of the West is rewrite of CARRIE, about a young girl with magic powers who is ostracized by the "in-crowd" and eventually snaps. Unfortunately, the effect is somewhat muted by the fact that she arguably never really turns "wicked" - bitter would be a more pat description.

The play is perhaps a bit overlong: the 2:00pm matinee, which started about ten minutes late, did not let out until nearly 5:00pm. And some of the songs drag - those traditional music numbers that stop the plot dead.

But that doesn't stop the overall experience from being an exciting, funny, and often touching one. Elphaba really does generate genuine sympathy, and the audience finds it easy to identify with her as an outsider who is forced to break away from conformity to a corrupt system that tolerates and even promotes injustice in the name of maintaining a soothing status quo.  Seeing her mutate into the familiar figure from the famous film is fascinating, and the closing number from Act One -- "Defying Gravity," when she first takes flight on her broom -- is a stunning show-stopper.

The performance was received ecstatically by the audience (which included many young children). Understudy Katie Adams was filling in for Kendra Kassebaum in the role of Glinda the Good, but there was no sign of awkwardness - her performance both as an actress and a singer seemed spot-on, and the play proceeded without a hitch. Not only did several songs receive loud applause, so did many of the lines - and one or two "surprise" appearances by familiar characters from the film. The standing ovation at the end was loud and long and wildly enthusiastic.

Of the two high-profile musicals currently playing in Hollywood that are based on old fantasy films, I have a preference for THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, because I found the overall story more satisfying, and I enjoyed a higher percentage of the songs. But WICKED clearly has the edge in terms of spectacular entertainment value, thanks to its elbobrate sets, costumes and mechanical effects (which include not only the flying witch but also flying monkeys). It truly is a magical experience, worth the price of admission.