Once again, a traveling version of Wicked has landed in Pittsburgh. You can bet that seats will be packed throughout its flight, even though this hit has been running for nearly eight years on Broadway. Surely people are drawn to it more than once, like re-visiting a beloved movie. In this case, as you probably know, this musical is a spin-off of a movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Not L. Frank Baum’s book really, but rather the enduring, classic 1939 film derived from it. And, although Wicked is said to be based on Gregory Maguire’s novel of that name, the sung and danced version of it is only a shadow of its source. In fact it looks as if Winnie Holtzman’s book tries to exploit familiarity by constantly throwing in references to the movie as do some of director Joe Mantello’s effects. Nonetheless both keep the frequently comic spirit alive during the first parts.
Some of Maguire’s most original ideas clearly come through, derived from his back-story about the Wicked Witch of the West, whom Maguire named Elphaba. And when you get to witness that imaginatively conceived story, swiftly sketched-in to make room for so many peripheral songs and production numbers, you get glimpses of satirical edges about animal rights, racism and fascism. Thus, this take on what Maguire created remains interesting and colorful amid the unrelenting sparkle and flash of making everything look dynamic.
But Steven Schwartz’s generally utilitarian, uninteresting and predictable music, spiced up with a few clever lyrics, take up too much time and space. This could have made such an interesting play. Would people buy tickets for such as that? Probably. But if you want to mount a theatrical spectacle aiming for really big bucks you have to have songs.
Anyway, this production of Wicked looks great with cleverly-styled costumes and sets to suggest another off-center time and place, decorated with some very good special effects. And everyone sings with style and verve, meaning, in this case, the leads belting out their numbers in the predictable stand-and-deliver, crowd-provoking style so common to recent musicals, short on meaningful melody, long on volume. Anne Brummel does everything right as Elphaba and Natalie Daradich plays all of Glinda’s bubble-headedness with good, big comic touches. On the other hand, they don’t really evoke much specific and interesting character. I also don’t find Don Amendola’s version of the Wizard to have any interesting qualities, as if he’s walking through the part. Come to think of it, most of the performances of other specific roles, although polished, came across as likewise generic.
I was surprised too by a very chintzy effect towards the end when Dorothy, an incidental character, is portrayed in a slapped-together shadow show throwing an empty bucket of water on Elphaba. With all the money this show costs to mount, you’d think that the producers could have had some member of the chorus do this on the stage front with real water.
But my throwing cold water on this production probably doesn’t matter to anyone interested in the show. And it does have such an imaginative premise. So, even if this performance seems to be taking itself for granted, it still looks and sounds good.
Wicked is at Benedum Center through October 2nd in the PNC Broadway Across America-Pittsburgh series : 412/-471-1390 or wicked.pgharts.org.