Thank Goodness for “Wicked”

Jake Boyd & Alyssa Fox - photo by Joan MarcusFew shows in the Broadway musical canon have enjoyed the record-breaking success of “Wicked,” which premiered in 2003. Thanks to the caliber of the cast and creative team and a pre-installed “Wizard of Oz” fanbase, the show became a pop culture phenomenon whose resonance endures today. When any show plays for over a decade, the risk of staleness due to familiarity is very real, but the production currently playing at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts avoids the issue due to the current global, socio-political climate and thanks to some subtle, creative choices.

The plot is fairly well-known at this point, but for the uninitiated, it serves as a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the beloved children’s fantasy novel that spawned the immensely popular film of the same name. The musical is based more directly on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” a revisionist take on Baum’s work. As one might guess, the musical mostly chronicles the early life of the to-be Wicked Witch Elphaba (Alyssa Fox) and her relationship with Glinda (Carrie St. Louis). The story also focuses on the dilemma created when Elphaba’s wish to be accepted by society conflicts with what is right.

There are several themes at work that make “Wicked” a worthwhile and thought-provoking piece of theatre, such as the effects of bullying and the alienation of minority social groups. The whole package is neatly tied with a confectionery, pop-music-inspired score whose accessibility and catchiness is difficult to resist. Elphaba and Glinda have been portrayed by two of the biggest names in the business in the past, but both leading ladies soar in this unenviable task.

Carrie St. Louis and Alyssa Fox (Photo by Joan Marcus_2015)St. Louis’ Glinda is equal parts Elle Woods and Regina George, and she pulls off a physical wit that seems just as effortless as the pleasant, operatic vibrato in her singing. It is also worth mentioning that when a more pensive Glinda appears in Act II, St. Louis delivers with equal aplomb. Alyssa Fox also rises to the occasion and presents an Elphaba that is strong, independent, willful, sad, lonely, precocious and vindictive: everything she should be. It is a demanding role, and when Fox sings “No Good Deed” – a show-stopper near the end of the show – it is an emotional wallop that is made all the more effective by the power and range in her voice.

Technically, the piece is a well-oiled machine. If there are delineated scenes in the script, an audience member would never know it. Moments flow seamlessly into the next with set pieces appearing and disappearing before they’re missed. The sets, lights and costumes are just as much of a delight as one would expect from a show like this. In fact, it is in this area that the production distinguishes and updates itself slightly.

I couldn’t help but notice that one male ensemble member was wearing a full-length skirt for most of Act I. It is a pleasant surprise and goes a long way to paint Oz as a fully accepting fantasy realm. When Shiz professor Doctor Dillamond (Chad Jennings) falls victim to the school’s new policy stating that animals can no longer teach at the school, the same ensemble member is seen wearing pants, reflecting not only the school’s stricter outlook and policies but also the changing ideology of Oz. It is a subtle yet extremely effective reinforcement of the show’s message.

Tickets for the show are a hot commodity, but fortunately, there is a day-of-performance lottery. Two and a half hours before curtain, patrons may enter their name into the drawing. Names will be drawn half an hour later, and, if selected, patrons may purchase up to two orchestra level seats for $25 each. It is worth noting that this is in-person only, cash-only and a valid ID must be on hand. It’s a risky way to get tickets but certainly a godsend to someone looking to go to a sold-out performance.

As Glinda says, “As terrifying as terror is, let us put aside our panic for this one day – and celebrate!” When you watch the show, that’s exactly what you’ll do, but you’ll also leave having thought a little, making “Wicked,” pretty much, a perfect musical. Thank goodness. VT

Courtesy photos