From its origins in L. Frank Baum’s1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to its adaptation in MGM’s blockbuster 1939 film The Wizard of Oz to its annual TV broadcast on CBS beginning in 1956 (which made it one of the best-known and most-viewed movies in history), the fantasy of Dorothy’s journey to the Land of Oz has remained a favorite of both children and adults for more than a century. But we never heard the backstory of the witches she encountered there, until Gregory Maguire wrote a book from their perspective in 1995, entitled Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire’s inventive prequel spin on Baum’s beloved narrative became the inspiration for the significantly reworked hit musical Wicked, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, which premiered on Broadway in 2003. The phenomenal Broadway touring production of the original award-winning show, directed by Joe Mantello, is now back in Philadelphia for a month-long run at the Academy of Music in the Broadway Philadelphia series, presented by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and The Shubert Organization. Its quirky characters, spectacular design, soaring score, and important moral lessons, delivered by a sensational cast, continue to work magic on audiences (and reviewers!) of all ages.
The complex and captivating show fleshes out the familiar figures and plot points in a go-back story that opens with the citizens of Oz celebrating the death of the Wicked Witch (“No One Mourns the Wicked”), then revisits the years before the arrival of Dorothy, tracing the characters’ origins, motivations, and development, while cleverly referencing famous scenes and lines from the movie. Here we find out the genesis of the ruby slippers, how monkeys came to fly, why the Tin Man didn’t have a heart, why the Cowardly Lion didn’t have the nerve, and, most importantly, why Glinda was called “Good” and Elphaba “Wicked.” In the wise words of the Wizard, “Truth is just what everyone believes . . . we call it history.”
Following the acclaimed Broadway performances by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in the lead roles, and the iconic appearances of Margaret Hamilton and Billie Burke in the film, Jessica Vosk as Elphaba and Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda have big shoes to fill on the tour. They do it with aplomb, bringing the contrasting personalities to life with their engaging acting, well-calibrated humor, and powerhouse voices. Mason laughably embodies the self-absorbed, spoiled, and perky “blond” (as Elphaba describes her in a single deadpan word), hilariously spoofing her primping, laughing, and flitting around the stage, relishing the adoration and attention she commands (and demands!), and effervescently singing about the necessity of being “Popular.” Vosk brings empathy and depth to the green-skinned outcast Elphaba – who, though smart, gifted, and sensitive, is scorned and misunderstood – as she recognizes that “Something Bad” is happening in Oz, laments her lack of appeal in “I’m Not That Girl,” and calls on her occult powers of “Defying Gravity” in her expressive show-stopping vocals (she also nails the witch’s infamous cackle, once she resolves to fight for herself and the people and animals she loves). As the two initial adversaries get to know each other, they forge an unlikely friendship of understanding and caring, and ultimately see how they’ve grown, learned, and changed one another “For Good.”
The supporting cast and ensemble are also top-notch. As Fiyero, the man both women love, Jeremy Woodard is as “profoundly shallow” as Glinda, “Dancing Through Life” with a supercilious attitude, until he discovers that true beauty lies within and, despite her outward appearance, finds himself attracted to the inner goodness of Elphaba (“As Long as You’re Mine”). Fred Applegate as the Wizard reveals the equivocal personality and socio-political machinations that put and keep him in power in the heartfelt ballad “A Sentimental Man” and the animated Vaudevillian-style song and dance “Wonderful.” Isabel Keating and Harry Bouvy as the witches’ mentors Madame Morrible and Professor Dillamond skillfully show the devolution of their characters, as she becomes increasingly power hungry, mean, and unethical, and he is nefariously transformed from an intellectual speaking goat into a bleating animal. Other standouts are Jenny Florkowski as Elphaba’s wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose and Robin de Jesús as Boq, the Munchkin she loves, though he pines for Glinda (who is completely disinterested and can’t even get his name right). His rejection engenders her dramatic transition into “The Wicked Witch of the East,” on whom Dorothy’s farmhouse lands. And the full ensemble effectively evokes a lethal mob mentality in “March of the Witch Hunters,” as public opinion demands the death of Elphaba.
Eye-popping costumes by Susan Hilferty and wigs by Tom Watson combine the Victorian fashions of Baum’s day with the oddities of Oz, and Eugene Lee’s scenic designs and Kenneth Posner’s lighting add to the show’s visual excitement, from the ubiquitous assemblage of gears and clockworks to the brilliant green of Emerald City. But along with the dazzling spectacle, Wicked leaves us with a serious message about how society defines and creates good and evil, and the ill effects of ostracism and inequality on those who don’t fit the norm. That alone should make this show “Popular.”
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.