Review: Wicked Returns and Thrills Its Exuberant Chicago Fans

I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the Nederlander Theatre who had never seen Wicked before. Most audience members were wearing green buttons that said “I’ve seen Wicked ___ Times” and more than a few were in double digits. It was sort of like going to a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show where everyone shouts the lines along with the actors on screen—but here no one was shouting or throwing objects at the stage. The Wicked audience seemed to anticipate what was coming next and welcomed their favorite moments and performers with applause.

The Wicked audience was better behaved and better dressed (many in sequins and spangles) and thrilled to see this story of love and friendship between Glinda (Jennafer Newberry), later known as the Good Witch, and Elphaba (Lissa deGuzman), the Wicked Witch of the West in the story to which Wicked is a prequel. L. Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz and its sequels while living in Humboldt Park in Chicago from 1891 to 1910. (Oz Park—just south of the Fullerton/Lincoln/Halsted intersection—commemorates his masterpieces of kid lit with statues of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and of course, Dorothy and Toto.)

Wicked’s book by Winnie Holzman does a clever job of foreshadowing and ultimately giving us a peek at the four Oz characters by the end of the play. (The musical is based on Gregory Maguire’s hit novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.) The music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, played by the Chicago orchestra led by Evan Roider, adds the melodic score that Wicked fans love. (My plus-one had seen Wicked four times before and plays the soundtrack regularly.) Joe Mantello’s solid direction keeps the semi-wandering plot on track as much as possible.

Michael Genet as Doctor Dillamond with Jennafer Newberry as Glinda. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wicked begins where it ends, with Glinda floating down on a bubble to greet her admirers. The ensemble takes the stage to exult with Glinda that the Witch of the West is dead, as the wreck of Dorothy’s house in Kansas teeters in the background.

Backing into the beginning of the story, we’re introduced to Elphaba’s family and her birth. (That green baby, really?) As she grows up, she has a younger sister, Nessarose (Kimberly Immanuel), who is confined to a wheelchair. Elphaba, Glinda and Nessarose end up in the same school, studying history with the adorable Doctor Dillamond (Michael Genet), playing his animal character with dignity. After one of his lectures, Glinda pouts, “I don’t see why you can’t just teach us history instead of always harping on the past.”

Elphaba grows up green, plain and outspoken in comparison to the ditsy, frilly Glinda. Elphaba is a star student and becomes a private student of headmistress Madame Morrible (Natalie Venetia Belcon) on the arts of magic and witchcraft.  

Elphaba and Glinda are enemies at first (and Elphaba is bullied because of her looks). Gradually they become friends when they become roommates. The scene in their room as they begin to confide in each other—and Glinda gives Elphaba a makeover—is sweet and girlfriend realistic.

John Bolton as the Wizard of Oz. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Elphaba completes her witchcraft training and is assigned to meet the great Wizard of Oz. The Wizard (who is a counterfeit wizard, as in the original Wizard story) is smartly played by John Bolton. The arrival of Elphaba (and Glinda) to Emerald City is one of the brilliant and colorful scenes in this high-production-values musical. (Settings are by Eugene Lee, the stunning and imaginative lighting by Kenneth Posner. Susan Hilferty’s costumes get an extra star for their creativity. Tom Watson’s wig and hair designs add the essential personalities to the characters.)

There’s much more to the plot of Wicked, and some of it could have been omitted. I know every play needs a love story with a handsome prince (Fiyero, played by Jordan Litz, who can’t decide which witch is best), but the frenemy-ship story between Glinda and Elphaba would have been stronger without Fiyero. Wicked shows us that friendship can be a more important relationship than a romantic one, and Fiyero’s presence muddies that message.

Another thread with a political edge regards the intelligent talking animals (like Doctor Dillamond) who are forbidden to speak and banished from human company in Oz. There’s a hint of fascism here—but it’s not fully realized and another example of the plot gone awry.  

Lissa deGuzman as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Newberry and deGuzman are a well-matched pair of leads and their powerful performances in the songs that end acts one and two are simply spectacular. “Defying Gravity” and “For Good” are fan favorites too. Newberry‘s soaring soprano and deGuzman’s expressive alto are paired perfectly in these songs and throughout their performances.

Wicked is a beautifully produced staging with a few especially strong performances. It was also rewarding to see a little diversity in the cast. The clunky plot and its unnecessary length (the first act alone runs 90 minutes) keep me from rating it it more highly.

The audience was enchanted with every minute of Wicked, however. My plus-one thought it was the best she has seen. After curtain calls, we chatted with two women sitting next to us. Both of them are agency PR managers who live in Lakeview. Andi had seen Wicked 10 times; “my mom started taking me when I was little.” Both she and Rachel, a third timer, thought the show was “amazing.” Andi observed that the style of this production was significantly stronger and more creative than other versions she has seen recently. After talking with Andi and Rachel, I was pretty sure this would not be the last time they would see Wicked.

Wicked continues  through December 4 at the James Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph. Tickets are $59-$194 for performances Tuesday-Sunday. Running time is 2.5 hours plus one intermission. Note: Wicked isn’t a children’s play; parents have to make their own decisions on this, of course, but to me, it seems meaningful for tweens and up.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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