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Wicked | The Fabulous Fox Theatre

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1212wicked 75Oprah would probably see Elphaba as “being her best self,” and you know what? She is.

 

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I’ve written about the durable musical Wicked in previous reviews, so when I was trying to think of something new to say, it struck me that I’ve never talked about one obvious theme: the balance of power is with the women all the way through the story. Possibly I haven’t mentioned it because in the 21st century, it doesn’t seem all that odd, but considering recent events on our political scene, perhaps “girl power” (I refuse to use “grrrl”) isn’t as unremarkable as I thought.

The story begins with the birth of a bright green infant named Elphaba conceived in a one-night stand in which her apparently slutty mom slept with a man addicted to a colored substance he shared with her. So, okay, we don’t start out with a woman being anything but a stereotype. As it happens, said woman is married to the Governor of Munchkinland (only he’s not short) whom she does not love. Still, they conceive another daughter, Nessarose, who is born early and damaged from the plant her husband forces upon the mom to ensure the child is not green. Well, she’s not, but she’s premature and has underdeveloped legs, and her mother dies, leaving Elphaba with only a green bottle to remember her by. (Keep an eye on it.)

We next see the sisters when their father drops them off at Shiz, a tony prep school for well-to-do children of powerful Ozians (Oz is an area divided into several different lands but all are under the control of the “Wonderful Wizard” of Oz.) Elphaba is only sent to be a guardian to daddy’s darling wheelchair-bound Nessa, but she displays her extraordinary powers early (she’s like The Hulk: You really don’t want to make her angry AND she’s green). The headmistress, Madame Morrible, selects her for special training, a privilege the wealthy and spoiled Galinda assumed would be hers. Instead, the vapid blonde and the smart green girl end up roommates who move from “loathing” (“What Is This Feeling”) to BFFs fairly quickly (in musical terms, within two songs before“Popular”).

Gregory Maguire’s novel, Wicked, tells the story of the “Wicked Witch of the West” before Dorothy blew into town, but the musical is quite different from its source material. Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book) have created an entirely sympathetic Elphaba, a finally admirable Glinda (after she realizes her happiness is not the entire world’s responsibility), and others who are good—Fiyero, beloved of both Elphaba and Glinda, and Boq, a virtual slave to the nasty Nessa—or bad—Morrible, the Wizard. A talented singing and dancing chorus functions as Shiz students, citizens of Oz, palace guards, and those famous flying monkeys. It is a lovely looking show, leaning toward gears and a big clock and stylized costumes. It’s essentially really elaborate Steampunk.

As the story plays out, Elphaba’s powers become frightening to the Wizard and Morrible (now the Wizard’s press agent and given, like Glinda, to constant malapropisms). Morrible gave Elphaba an ancient book of spells called the Grimmerie, which she is able to understand and use. In “Defying Gravity,” the first act curtain number, she comes into her own, ascending to the rafters and belting out the (literal) power ballad. When she returns in Act II, she is a woman in full. Meanwhile, Glinda has assumed her mantel as “Glinda, the Good,” and strikes Evita poses as she stands on a platform addressing her people, her (temporarily) betrothed Fiyero by her side. As in the movie, the Wizard has no real power, and the girls (including Morrible who can control the weather but little else) are now running the show.

So besides the issues of animal rights, bigotry due to fear of difference, disability, and an unnatural attachment to footwear, Wicked has a legitimate place in the canon of feminist theatrical literature. But on the surface, it is an entertainment that appeals strongly to tweens and teens, and that’s fine, because some of the positive messages about being yourself, doing your best, not hurting others, and friendship are bound to get through. Adults can look for the deeper meanings if they want to, but they, too, can enjoy it on an entirely superficial level—although I doubt most do. For example, a friend told me that the first time she saw the show, all she could think about was the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1930s. It’s there. Our current political climate with animosity on both sides and the (male) titular ruler being an empty suit? Sure, that’s there, too.

Oprah would probably see Elphaba as “being her best self,” and you know what? She is. Wicked is one of my favorite shows for many reasons, and if your kids aren’t too young (under eight, maybe?), they’ll enjoy it. This version seems to have better actors than I’ve seen in the past, but the singing, in some cases, isn’t quite as strong. The exceptions are the lovely, lyric soprano Glinda displays and the balls-out style Elphaba adopts, but it did take the latter a bit to warm up. Overall, though, I felt more attached to the characters than I have during past productions. L. Frank Baum didn’t create Elphaba, but I think he’d be dazzled and delighted by his namesake. Most of us are. | Andrea Braun

Wicked is at the Fox Theatre through January 6, 2013. Visit www.fabulousfox.com for information.

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