Since its Broadway debut in 2003, Wicked has become one of the most popular pieces of musical theater in history. I still remember the Patton-esque staff meeting that my fellow ArtTix ticket agents and I attended a few weeks before Broadway Across America first brought Wicked to our fair state—along with the joyous chaos that ensued as fans lined up around the block for tickets. Now that Wicked is back in Salt Lake, and Capitol Theatre is hosting the second in what looks to be a long line of sold-out shows, it’s clear that Utahns still have a hankering to defy some gravity.
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked takes the mythology of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, injects it with a bit of John Hughes teen dramedy and finishes it off with some memorable musical numbers. Along the way, we see how many of the characters from Dorothy’s adventures in Oz have much larger back stories. That blowhard of a wizard, for example, is actually kind of a dick. I’m a sucker for a good origin story, and since this one involves characters from a film that I must have watched six times a day for three years straight when I was a kid, I love seeing someone take the time to explain how the flying monkeys got their wings—along with the psychological trauma that made that Cowardly Lion so cowardly.
As this is a professional troupe of actors, musicians and stage designers, the production was top notch. Emma Hunton played Elphaba with the right combination of introverted nerdiness and righteous indignation, and Gina Beck—who seems to be some miraculous amalgam between present-day Carey Mulligan and circa-1987 Kim Cattrall—perfectly captured the Disney princess inside Glinda. This is a show that can live or die by the performances of these integral roles, and both actresses crush it. Not only are their vocal abilities off the charts, but the actresses have great chemistry together, which makes it easy to see the emotional turmoil within both of their characters. The actresses were able to translate the complexity of their characters vocally during the songs that they performed together—Hunton’s voice sliced through the air like a pop diva, whereas Beck’s sailed along in operatically-measured cadence. The supporting cast was well-rounded, though Alison Fraser’s Madame Morrible stood out from the pack as she channeled a megalomaniacal Zsa Zsa Gabor. Nick Adams brought the right amount of effortless charm to the character of Fiyero, but his romantic chemistry with Elphaba wasn’t quite on point.
From the moment that members of the ensemble blasted the audience with streamers of confetti, it was evident that some serious effort went into the play’s production design. As the story progresses, Wicked takes the audience to several different locations within the Land of Oz. It’s difficult enough trying to change the play’s settings to accommodate these different locations, but to be able to make it happen within a world that doesn’t actually exist takes a lot of talent and imagination. Even though it was the subtleties within Eugene Lee’s set design that made the environment come to life, it was tough not to be awestruck at the first appearance of the thunderous, mechanized apparatus that serves as the Wizard’s public persona. To complement the impressive set design, Susan Hilferty’s costumes were equally imaginative and beautiful—particularly within the Emerald City. The ensemble was decked out in velvety green couture, and their donning of emerald sunglasses hinted at the ironic tunnel vision that is shared by the citizens of Oz.
Perhaps it’s Wicked’s treatment of that tunnel vision that makes the show so memorable. The set design, costumes and music are all top notch, but the reason Wicked sells out is because it manages to tell a thought-provoking story and still be an entertaining musical. At its core, Wicked is a story that isn’t necessarily about brave heroes and insidious villains. To quote Harper Lee, it’s about “the simple hell people give other people without even thinking,” and how important it is to do the right thing even if that happens to spit in the face of the moral majority. And I dare you not to get goosebumps after hearing Elphaba and Glinda belt out “Defying Gravity.”