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REVIEW: Splendid Wickedness in Wicked (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

Part prequel, part revisionist history: the musical Wicked tells how many of the beloved and iconic characters and events in The Wizard of Oz became that way. Pictured: Jennafer Newberry as Glinda in the National Tour of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There is not a lot new to be said about the musical Wicked. This 2003 stage musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel 1995 Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is a delightfully revisionist history of the events of The Wizard of Oz. Filled with in-jokes and wordplay – and several iconic songs by Stephen Schwartz – the musical grabbed three Tony Awards before becoming the second-highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time.

For a show whose Broadway gross topped $1 billion in 2016, you’d expect that something must be going right. Indeed, watching the touring production of Wicked – now playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis – the predominant affect is fun. The special effects are cool and eye-catching, and everyone is bound to have a favorite scene or three, as well as innumerable favorite bits of wordplay in composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s score or Winnie Holzman’s book. The cast album has been a go-to for younger musical theatre fans, and on opening night the sold-out house was filled with people discussing their favorite recordings of Wicked, including international recordings in other languages.

Not about Dorothy: the central characters of Wicked are Glinda (Jennafer Newberry) and Elphaba (Lissa deGuzman) as enemies-turned-unlikely-friends (and “good” and “bad” witches, respectively). Photo by Joan Marcus.

If this sounds a bit obsessive, well, yes: in becoming the second-highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time, Wicked dethroned The Phantom of the Opera (both are still playing in New York City, for the record), a show whose appeal cuts across multiple strata of society. Some of the audience members in attendance had come to know the show from its iconic duet “Defying Gravity”, which was a plot-critical element in a first-season episode of Glee. Some had read the novel. Others came because they loved The Wizard of Oz, or had been dragged in by friends. It is, quite simply, a pop culture phenomenon, bringing in one of the most age-diverse audiences seen at the Orpheum in eight years of reviewing.

If those are the bones of the show, what will you get from seeing the national tour of Wicked? For starters, killer performances by Lissa deGuzman as Elphaba (better know as the Wicked Witch of West) and Jennafer Newberry as her foil Galinda (better known as Glinda the Good). Their comedic repartee and duetting are standout features of the show. Another standout is the special effects, particularly the use of lighting in combination with practical effects to create engrossing, rippling tableaus of color. When Elphaba takes to the skies at the end of Act 1, it is simply cool.

This impressive photo of Lissa deGuzman as Elphaba does not actually do the visuality of the scene justice. In-person, the waves of light ripple through the rolling mist, creating a magically shifting tapestry of light of the sort normally only possible in movie special effects. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The one thing that you want to make sure going into Wicked is some familiarity with The Wizard of Oz, whether that’s from L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 novel or the 1939 film starring Judy Garland. There are numerous visual jokes and quasi-meta references in every scene that had the house chuckling – and a few key plot things that otherwise don’t make sense – that make an excellent excuse for (re)viewing the Garland film.

Another strong feature is John Bolton’s excellent performances as The Wizard, alternately channeling old-school screwball comedy with a rather frighteningly charismatic dictatorship. Perhaps moreso than before, the ways in which commentaries on fascism are worked into the production serve as a resonatingly chilling commentary on some current world events. As a conversation piece to go with a thrilling and fast-paced musical production (and I do mean fast – many songs move much faster than in the original cast album, which is not a bad thing), Wicked is a splendid evening of theatre.

Whether looking to dip your toe into musical theatre for the first time, looking to revisit an iconic film from childhood, or simply wanting a thrilling evening out, Wicked is the thing to be. (Watching, that is.) Plus, with a month-long run, it is a given that many people will take the opportunity to see the show more than once, including to take different friends.

Wicked runs through August 28 at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, MN.

Editor’s Note: An early version of this review incorrectly stated that Wayne Schroder was playing The Wizard on July 28, rather than John Bolton.

Basil Considine