Ginna Claire Mason and Marie Kate Morrissey in a scene from 'Wicked' now playing through September 2nd at The Detroit Opera House. Photo by Joan Marcus
DETROIT-I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.
It’s not hard to believe that ‘Wicked’ - the Broadway smash which helped to make Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth two of the most influential females to take the American stage - is still selling out theatres across the country. After all, it’s in the same universe as “The Wizard of Oz,” was nominated for ten Tony awards, produced revolutionary technical designs, and features some of the most original (and memorable) songs of the decade. Those in attendance surely got their money's worth and for this critic, whose managed to elude this show for the past twelve years, he left very impressed.
Described as a dense epic fantasy, “Wicked,” based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, tells the story of Elphaba Thropp (played on this tour by a convincing Mary Kate Morrissey) a bright, yet neglected young girl who was born with green skin. The plot follows her path to becoming the insatiable Witch of the West, and takes you on an entirely different trip down the yellow brick road than you probably remember.
The story is beefed up with some bizarre and strange plot twists, allowing more depth to characters we already knew from “Oz;” and that background knowledge will suit you exceptionally as the show opens with the heart stopping "No One Mourns the Wicked,” in which the bubbly, ditzy, and often fragile Glinda Upland (fittingly played by Gina Claire Mason) descends onto the stage via bubble, overlooking the entire ensemble and detailing how the Wicked Witch has perished at the hands of a small-town girl. Mason's acting gracefully follows the arch of her character, coming on a bit strong at first, but then mellowing herself out towards the end of act one.
The show's impact is felt from the opening scenes as the design and book masterfully balance out, and the breathtaking set (designed by Eugene Lee) winds back the clock (literally) to a simpler time, before Glinda and Elphaba's tenures as witches of good and evil respectively, to when they met as college roommates.
It’s here where we get our first glimpse of Elphaba (which necessitates roaring applause upon her first appearance) as the bastard child of the Mayor of Munchinkinland. Seen as a disgrace and outcast, the green skinned Elphaba struggles to make friends, but is solely enrolled in classes to keep a close eye on her wheelchair-bound sister, Nessarose (Mili Diaz). Her path crosses with the annoyingly squeal-pitched Glinda, and the rest almost seems to be history.
The conflict (and eventual friendship) that transpires between these two serve as good fodder, giving depth and chemistry to songs like “Popular” and “One Short Day.” Mason and Morrissey seemingly play up these moments of banter, delivering a truly memorable experience. In particular, the act one finale “Defying Gravity” brings the house down, proving that Stephen Schwartz's score has indeed stood the test of time, with traveling music director Adam Souza (who also did the original Broadway run) amping up the riffs and tracks effectively.
The message of being able to live happily in your own skin resonates exceptionally with today's audiences, so props given to Winnie Holzmans's script that has managed to sustain itself over the years and deliver such impressive and enduring commentaries on feminism and equality, as well.
Granted, Holzman and Schwartz seem to add one intersecting plot device after another (The first act runs just under 90 minutes, and has a subplot introduced every five minutes). At times, it seems like fan service (lets see if we can spot the “Oz” reference, or fun takes on classic lines like “I’ll get you my pretty!”) The first act seems very condensed, throwing one exposition piece after another, including one that involves the mistreatment of flying monkeys. However, a magical trip to the Emerald City is a giddy highlight. In part because the design of this sequence is so elaborate and intoxicating, and the other is the cast has a blast with the massive stage and their surroundings (How this production creates the illusion of The Wonderful Wizard of OZ is a technical marvel).
The second act seems to transition better (clocking in under an hour) mainly because much of the heavy lifting has been accounted for. You’ll find out all the tricks and secrets about the creations of the Tin-Man, Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion (questions you probably never had, but will be grateful are answered). Truthfully, the growth between Glinda and Elphaba alone is enough to purchase a ticket (Morrissey even lets loose the iconic cackle, that would make Margaret Hamilton proud).
Other key supporting players (Jody Gelb, Cole Doman, Jason Graae, and Chad Jennings) all earn their keep, which resulted in a much earned standing ovation.
On the whole, if you’ve seen “Wicked” a thousand times, or are heading for your inaugural viewing, those of all ages will find enjoyment. Capturing the kookiness that made the first trip to Oz so enchanting, while keeping in tune with its own spirit and tenacity, “Wicked” does a solid job reminding you, there’s no place like home.
IF YOU GO:
'Wicked' continues its run through Sunday September 2nd at The Detroit Opera House. Tickets range from $40-$135 and can be purchased via Ticketmaster or BroadwayInDetroit.com