Oz backstory, “Wicked,” is a holiday treat
The crowd-pleasing, Tony Award-winning musical Wicked was first performed on Broadway in 2004. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, it is today among the top 12 longest-running productions on Broadway.
Now at the Kennedy Center on a national tour, a recent performance included a number of young adults decked out in sparkling green attire in honor of one of the heroines, the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba.
If this is your first experience with Wicked, don’t expect the Land of Oz of Frank L. Baum’s many inventive novels. The musical, based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, imagines Oz before Dorothy comes on the scene. An engaging backstory of the witches of Oz, as well as some other familiar characters, takes center stage.
Elphaba, played by Lissa deGuzman, is born different, with green cactus-dull skin. She’s prickly, too, after her father’s hostility and the continual taunts of classmates, and weighted by an uneasy devotion to her sister, Nessarose, who is in a wheelchair. At boarding school, Elphaba’s skill at sorcery catches the eyes of Madame Morrible (regal and craven in the skilled hands of Natalie Venetia Belcon).
Elphaba’s visual drabness, especially against the color-drenched, detail-luxuriant Kennedy Center Opera Stage, can make it hard to empathize with Elphaba initially. But her drive for justice and her compassion warm a scene where Elphaba shares lunch with a teacher (who is a goat), played by Michael Genet with sympathy and frustration.
Raging at the growing persecution of animal citizens in Oz, deGuzman’s powerful voice is anything but dull or diffident, despite a few moments where it seemed that she might still be suffering from the illness that, in the first week of performance, knocked out all the lead actors.
Roommates Elphaba and Glinda (in this performance played by understudy Jackie Raye) regard one another at first with tremendous hostility, but later become close friends.
Glinda’s a selfish beauty who is used to getting what she wants. That includes the company of young prince Fiyero (Jordan Litz). With a voice as handsome as he is, Litz makes the audience believe his struggle to change from flashy and shallow to principled and thoughtful.
Visiting Emerald City — a futuristic cross between Las Vegas and the clockworks of Chaplin’s Modern Times — the young witches-to-be face a turning point. The Wizard (John Bolton) is more sinister than the weak, sentimental Midwesterner he claims to be. With Madame Morrible, he’s got power-hungry plans for Oz that require Elphaba’s special skills.
The notable skill of all of the supporting actors helps bring this shadowed Oz to life — including the darkly codependent Nessarose (Kimberly Immanuel) and her love interest, Boq (Jake Pedersen). Chistery (Brion Marquis Watson) and his fellow flying monkeys are especially eerie and engrossing as they fully inhabit the winged simians.
Although I suspect I am an outlier, I felt many of the songs in Wicked slow the story with too much explication. The chorus numbers, although visually appealing in choreography and Victorian-steampunk attire, can be difficult to understand.
On the other hand, DeGuzman’s thrilling “Defying Gravity,” at the climax of the first act, paired perfectly with vivid multidimensional lighting that seemed to hold Elphaba suspended while Ozians scurried beneath and among stardust, as she seized control of her destiny.
As Elphaba goes on the run, Glinda has still not found a way to channel her energy into anything beyond herself. She faces her own turning point when Fiyero is no longer willing to overlook her faults or deny the dictates of his heart.
One caveat: When Fiyero and Elphaba sing “As Long As You’re Mine,” and fondle each other while kneeling amid the theatrical fog, I was glad not to be there with a young audience member.
Nonetheless, the Kennedy Center’s production features strong acting, beautiful voices, glittering sets, and a suspenseful plot that makes it a winning holiday treat.
Wicked is a story of a friendship tested. Often thoughtless and even cruel, Glinda sets in motion acts that will change the lives of all the characters she touches.
Is her character nuanced, or is it too easy to overlook her faults because of her voice — in the complex emotion of the song “Thank Goodness” — and her exuberant physical humor that channels Gilda Radner or Molly Shannon? She also gets most of the funny lines and uses them to good effect.
Wicked reminds us that friendship can challenge us to be our best selves. With Glinda’s help, Elphaba finds the confidence to pursue her vision. At every step she seeks to counteract wrongdoing.
Elphaba doesn’t give up on believing that Glinda can one day live up to the image of goodness that everyone thinks they see. And Glinda returns the favor.
Wicked runs through Jan. 22, and is recommended for children 8 and up. It has a run time of 2 hours and 50 minutes with one intermission.
Tickets range from $59 to $349. To order, contact the box office at kennedy-center.org or call (202) 467-4600. A limited number of discounted tickets for students and adults over 65 are available; see the box office in person.
Masking is optional. The theater encourages patrons who do not feel well on the day of show to remain at home.
The Kennedy Center is located at 2700 F. St. NW, in Washington, D.C. and is accessible by car and public transportation. Pre-paid parking costs $22. A free shuttle bus runs between the Foggy Bottom/GWU metro station and the Kennedy Center prior to and following performances.