Monday, June 20, 2005

It's Not Easy Being "Wicked"

music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
book by Winnie Holzman, based (very loosely) on the novel by Gregory Maguire
at the Pantages Theatre, Los Angeles, CA

This past Friday I finally saw my first play in Los Angeles.

Should I be ashamed that it was a Broadway musical?

It’s not the “musical” part that embarrasses me. Far from it—if I were in New York, I’d feel no qualms about satisfying that fix, and “Wicked” was definitely on my Broadway list.

But that’s just it: I’m not in New York. I’m in L.A. And considering I’ve waxed rhetorical in the past about supporting homegrown theater & performing arts, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite admitting that I haven’t yet put my money where my mouth is. (Even my ticket to “Wicked” was a birthday present.) As a general matter, I can honestly say that I’ve made a good faith effort to embrace the local arts & cultural life beyond the Hollywood shuffle. I’ve been to all of the major art museums, a few art gallery openings, and concerts at both the Walt Disney concert hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and I’ve pledged an annual membership to a local classical public radio station. But L.A.’s drama scene just hasn’t sufficiently sparked my interest to get me into the theater. And I don’t think seeing one touring Broadway production is going to change that.

That said, my first time at the Pantages was quite an experience. As theaters go, it’s one of a kind—art deco gone wild, complete with a mechanically controlled brass dragon presiding over the stage that might not actually breathe smoke, but sure looks like it could. The Pantages used to be an all-purposes entertainment venue, back in the day, featuring everything from vaudeville to movies to stage pieces, and was only recently restored to its former splendor in preparation for Broadway’s “The Lion King.” Good thing they dim the lights for the show, or I might easily have been distracted by the decor. Fortunately, there was plenty onstage to hold my interest.

Live theater has a peculiar effect on me. The first half hour or so always feels incredibly, almost painfully mannered and artificial, and I can’t believe that what I’m watching is ever going to win over any part of me. Then, as the modulated voices, sharpened diction, and enhanced gestures begin to feel natural, I gradually give myself over to the weird, pure joy of the theatrical experience. But I always need that half-hour lead-in, and it’s always uphill going at first.

This was especially true of “Wicked,” a modern-day retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" from the viewpoint of the Wicked Witch of the West. Everything about the production initially felt rough around the edges: The slinking choreography called to mind a muddled mixture of “Les Mis” and “Cats”; some of the soloists wavered off pitch; the humor felt feeble and forced, despite some spot-on delivery by veteran Carol Kane (as Madam Morrible), while the earnest lines felt...well, a tad too earnest. As for the two leads, Glinda, the Good Witch (Kendra Kassebaum), seemed a bit tentative, while the title character, aka Elphaba (Stephanie Block), was rather colorless—notwithstanding a lovely absinthe-green hue that made me wonder idly (as I did with the Blue Man Group in Boston) whether the makeup she must wear night after night was at all harmful to her skin. The shifting social dynamics and rivalries of the two women—who move from mutual loathing to fast friendship—unfolded somewhat stiffly, and not entirely credibly.

Then, all of a sudden, about a third of the way in—right when Glinda and Elphie arrive in Oz to seek the Wizard—things clicked into place. Not coincidentally, that’s when Elphaba’s personality fully emerges for the first time (with the electrifying and literally soaring number “Defying Gravity”), and the political and social allegory behind “Wicked” becomes most pointed. The really subversive idea behind “Wicked” is not so much that goodness is manufactured and/or ultimately illusory, but rather that *happiness* is. In a world where “Oz” is the equivalent of “God,” happiness becomes the opiate of the masses, and Elphaba becomes the bearer of the unhappy truth: the powers that be have no real power to bring happiness, and being (or looking) different from the norm can get you killed or silenced. The rest of “Wicked” is about her struggle with the regime that seeks to either turn her into a mouthpiece or destroy her by defaming her as an enemy of the state. (Parallels with any current political situation are, of course, in the eye of the beholder.)

However, a certain cloudiness surrounds Elphaba’s character – whether she’s really at all wicked, or, as Glinda quips, merely has wickedness thrust upon her. “Wicked” suggests the latter—that she’s a victim of bad press, so to speak, and bad luck that seems to dog her whenever she tries to set things right. “No good deed goes unpunished,” she sings passionately. But she’s too strong-willed to be a victim. Unfortunately, Schwartz, Holzman, et al.—unlike Maguire—don’t have the guts to let her become either an ironic or tragic heroine. Instead, rather improbably, amor vincit omnia.

In freely adapting the novel (which contains a lot of interesting ideas that aren’t very coherently brought together), the musical largely streamlines and simplifies Maguire’s multiple narrative and character arcs. However, it also introduces new twists—new romantic triangles, as well as new stories of “origins” that don’t appear to be thought through very carefully. Some characters fall by the wayside; several are reimagined, with indifferent success. Elphaba’s sister Nessarose—the Wicked Witch of the East, a quietly menacing presence in the book—fades into a fragile, lonely passivity here: if this were “Little Women,” she’d be Beth to Elphaba’s Jo. But then the book’s general atmosphere of quiet menace and inarticulable dread is largely absent here. Still, enough traces of it remain that the more vaudeville-style numbers—light, easy, forgettable—seem particularly rusty and out of sync with the rest.

The strong selling point of “Wicked” is, of course, the complex relationship between Glinda and Elphaba, and in that respect the touring production doesn’t disappoint—despite having some very big shoes to fill. (Well, ok, very little shoes in the case of Glinda, who was played by the incomparable Kristen Chenoweth on Broadway.) Kassebaum gets more comfortable as she goes on, and in some ways her character is the more interesting of the two. But the real star of the show is, of course, Elphaba (originated by Idina Menzel, who won a Tony for the role), and Block more than holds her own in the role. With an amazingly supple voice that can go from liquid softness to spine-tingling soprano to abrasive cackle, she makes Elphaba larger than life, ready to spring from the confined formula of a Broadway musical. Wicked she may not be, but powerful she certainly is.


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