News Column

Nothing 'Wicked' about Philly adaptation

July 5, 2013


July 05--IT'S EASY to understand the love and adoration showered upon "Wicked" since its Broadway debut a decade ago.

With its smart and clever story (which boasts darker undertones than one might imagine in such a frothy, crowd-pleasing property), frequently funny book, thrilling lighting and stage design, and a score by Stephen Schwartz that actually lingers in the mind's ear well beyond the parking garage, "Wicked" is pretty much everything a Broadway musical is supposed to be.

That it has as its inspiration what is arguably the most beloved fantasy tale in American history is yet another reason why the show has earned its place among the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful musicals of all time.

The bus-and-truck version of "Wicked" running through Aug. 4 at the Academy of Music does nothing to diminish the play's legacy, thanks to the factors listed above, as well as a stellar cast that hits all the right notes -- musical and otherwise.

"Wicked," is based on "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," Gregory Maguire's wildly inventive novel that provides the back stories for the iconic green villain (herein dubbed "Elphaba") and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, two characters central to the "The Wizard of Oz."

It explains how the chartreuse-skinned Elphaba got to be so nasty (it's not like she was born that way), but not how she turned out with such a bizarre skin hue (she was born that way, although the reasons remain untold).

Just as how her personality got so twisted is set out, so is the reason why, in "The Wizard of Oz," the Wizard wanted her dead (there is actually a subtle Third Reich allegory afoot here). Suffice it to say the moral of the story is: It isn't easy being green.

The two women who created the roles of Elphaba and Glinda -- Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth respectively -- are as inextricably linked to those characters as Barbra Streisand is to Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" and Carol Channing to Lorelei Lee in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Which means the bar is set high for any actresses tackling the assignments. But the two leads in Wednesday night's performance proved up to the task -- and then some.

Through Sunday, Dee Roscioli, who has portrayed Elphaba on Broadway, is filling in for the ill Alison Luff. Roscioli certainly has the pipes for such showstoppers as "The Wizard and I" and "Defying Gravity." But she also brings with her a far more uncommon talent, a wonderful, deadpan delivery that exponentially enhances her character's many punch lines. Both Roscioli's speaking voice and perfect comic timing recall those of Broadway stalwart Bebe Neuwirth.

Wednesday, the role of the goodhearted, but ditzy (in a blonde sort of way), Glinda was performed by Cassie Okenka. If she is the stand-in, we can only imagine how good first-stringer Jenn Gambatese is.

Among those providing uniformly strong support are veteran entertainer John Davidson as the Wizard, and longtime soap opera diva Kim Zimmer as Madame Morrible. Both old pros are fun to watch in their secondary, but key roles.

It all adds up to as perfect an evening of musical theater as you'll find on the boards today.


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