— Original Broadway Company
When the smash hit Broadway musical Wicked broke box office records at the Queen E. on its first tour to Vancouver in 2011, I was one of the uns: unconvinced and unimpressed. Sure, it’s a clever prequel to The Wizard of Oz with some witty perspectives on that story from the witches’ point of view. The show has a couple of strong lead female characters and the production featured spectacular costumes. But otherwise I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about.
What a difference a remount makes. Although presented by the same touring organization, Broadway Across Canada, with the same direction, choreography, musical arrangements and design, this edition of Wicked has a whole new cast and gigawatts more theatrical energy. Best of all, in Kara Lindsay it has a Glinda who makes real stage magic happen.
The musical begins with the citizens of Oz celebrating the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. Leading the celebrations is lovely good witch Glinda, who wafts in on a flying bubble looking like a Disney princess and sounding like a Dumb and Dumber version of Elle in Legally Blonde. “It’s good to see me, isn’t it,” she squeaks, with a combination of unselfconscious innocence and blind conceit.
As Glinda proceeds to tell the story of Elphaba (Laurel Harris), the green-skinned girl who became her roommate, friend, rival, and eventually the hated wicked witch, Wicked unfolds as a long flashback. We watch the relationship of Galinda (her original name) and Elphaba develop at university, where the unloved Elphaba, sent there by her father, governor of the Munchkins, to watch over her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Emily Behny), is singled out by headmistress Madame Morrible (Kathy Fitzgerald) to learn sorcery.
Ultra-popular airhead Galinda and loathed, freaky, brainy Elphaba become odd couple BFFs in conjunction with a sub-plot involving Nessarose and Munchkin boy Boq (Lee Slobotkin), but due mostly to Galinda’s good-natured life-coaching of her awkward green roomie. The make-over scene where Galinda shows Elphaba how to seductively toss her hair and otherwise make herself physically attractive is hilarious. Along with her sweet soprano singing voice Lindsay has huge comic gifts. She uses a large repertoire of very funny physical gags to make her elegant Galinda endearingly klutzy, and she can bring the house down just by pronouncing the word “pop-u-u-lar.”
Harris is a strong singer, belting out Elphaba’s desire to meet the Wizard (Gene Weygandt). When she does and he turns out to be a fraud and tyrant, Elphaba’s decision to become a revolutionary opponent of the regime is marked by Harris’ knockout rendition of the show’s girl-power anthem, “Defying Gravity.”
Although Elphaba’s resistance to tyranny occupies the thematic centre, Lindsay owns the stage in this production. Elphaba’s radicalization begins when she uses her magic to help the animals in Oz and goat-professor Dillamond (John Hillner), the first casualties of the Wizard’s reign of terror. What you’ll remember, though, is the comedy of Lindsay’s Galinda pronouncing her name for the goat-prof who has trouble with the first syllable, then explaining how she’s changing her name from GA-linda to Glinda as her act of sympathy for the oppressed animals.
It’s pretty remarkable in itself that two women are the central protagonists. The strong leads in this production bring out the complexities of the womance that develops between Glinda and Elphaba, whose attraction for each other grows stronger even as their differences become sharper. This becomes especially clear with the introduction of the male love interest, handsome Fiyero (Matt Shingledecker). Like Glinda, he first appears shallow, and so makes a natural match with Glinda. But like her, he actually has more substance, so in Act Two he turns his attention to Elphaba and the two witches’ rivalry takes on the added dimension of a love triangle.
Act Two drags a little because the momentum of Elphaba’s heroic quest is interrupted by her romantic concerns for Fiyero, something that never happens with a male hero. And at the very end the conventional gendered formula of the Broadway musical takes precedence as Fiyero gets one of the girls. Still, there’s a powerful moment during the musical finale when the women sing about how their friendship changed them both for good. As the staging puts them in a literal triangle we can almost see the thought bubbles in the women’s heads: Is my loyalty to him or to her? Do I stay or do I go? That this could even be an option for female characters in a Broadway musical separates Wicked from the pack.
I’m still not crazy about Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics and score but again enjoyed the spectacle of Susan Hilferty’s colourful costumes and Eugene Lee’s handsome clockwork setting. The energy and chemistry of the two witches, though, and Kara Lindsay’s scintillating performance are what make this rendition worthy of its title.