Aug. 10--BOSTON -- A decade after opening on Broadway, "Wicked," the musical back-story of "The Wizard of Oz," is still vibrant and exciting, with absolutely gorgeous music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.
The touring production that opened this week at The Boston Opera House had some uneven singing, but better acting and dancing than in the two other touring shows I've seen.
Jenn Gambatese's Glinda the Good is a terrific blend of a ditzy exterior and a genuinely nice person hidden within. The character is also hilarious. A Broadway veteran, Gambatese is comfortable on stage and well-versed in handling the musical demands of a show like "Wicked." Her soprano is smooth and warm, bringing to life the opening number, "No One Mourns the Wicked," as well as "Thank Goodness" and the widely sung, and very funny, "Popular."
In addition to a great voice, Gambatese can slide into song and make it feel natural, a true gift for a musical theater actor. And speaking of acting, it's the little gestures -- the way Gambatese's hands grip and twist at the railing when she is betraying her friend Elphaba -- that help tell the story in a compelling way.
Gregory Maguire's novel, on which "Wicked" is based, is very political, commenting on racism and groups of people being marginalized (in this magical setting, animals no longer being allowed to talk) and those ideas come across clearly in this production. Accomplished acting from all and good direction from Joe Mantello showcase the conflict and message in this story of how the good witch and the wicked witch (Elphaba) -- as well as scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion -- came to be.
Let's talk about Elphaba for a moment. On media night Thursday, standby Laurel Harris filled in for headliner Alison Luff. There was no explanation as to why. Harris, who has understudied the role in other tours, is a good Elphaba, the green, and eventually wicked, witch. The acting in "As Long As You're Mine," her duet with love interest Fiyero (Curt Hansen), is passionate to the point of melting, and it's not because he threw a bucket of water at her. (You remember: That's what undid the wicked witch in "The Wizard of Oz.")
Both Harris and Hansen are a little uneven vocally, but when they are singing together in this romantic ballad, it doesn't matter. Harris' weaker voice matters more in some of the first-act songs that must be carried by Elphaba. It's impossible to say whether the actress' early trouble was because of a microphone problem or because notes like the famously high one at the end of "Defying Gravity" were out of Harris' comfortable range. Because some songs ("I'm Not That Girl" and its Act 2 reprise) were terrific.
It was fun to watch John Davidson as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Kim Zimmer as Madame Morrible, school headmistress. You can nearly always tell when TV actors are on stage because you can't shake the feeling that you know them from somewhere. In Zimmer's case, it's "Guiding Light," where she won four lead-actress Emmy Awards playing Reva Shayne. She's also a stage veteran, who exudes confidence in her over-the-top role as evil and smarmy Madame Morrible. Davidson is a game-show regular and talk-show host, who performs in Las Vegas, which probably contributes to his wonderful rendition of "Wonderful."
The show's sets, lights and costumes are as rich as caramel and as colorful as a carnival. Kudos to all involved and to the choreography team. They had a lot to work with: Hansen, playing Fiyero, moves with a liquid grace and may look familiar as he was teen heartthrob Dak Zevon with Nickelodeon's "Big Time Rush."
This is definitely a "Wicked" good production worth seeing, even if you've seen the musical before. But without a crystal ball to see Luff, the Elphaba regular, it's hard to say if the chemistry will be as good as it was between Gambatese and Harris, and whether Luff's singing as Elphaba will be even better.
And one final note: the show may be a little intense for young viewers. Those flying monkeys are as scary as they were when I first saw "The Wizard of Oz" at age 7.
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