13 March 2009

Wicked review

Two days ago, I went to the Wednesday matinee showing of Wicked. The musical is loosely based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. Both the musical and the novel are a "revisionist" re-telling of the well-known Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, from the perspective of the witches. Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics, and Winnie Holzman did the book.

The plot feels like another Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer clone. The coming-of-age story, featuring a misunderstood, outsider protagonist, just never gets old or unpopular with the public. I went into the musical thinking I be jaded about another such story, but Wicked had enough charm and cleverness for me to enjoy it. The main characters Elphaba and Glinda were played by Nicole Parker and Alli Mauzey. They had just taken over from the previous actors and were quite good. The plot starts off pretty stereotypical. Elphaba is the sassy outcast with a chip on her shoulder and Glinda is the ditzy blonde who is obsessed with looks and popularity. However, there are some clever twists, mostly in how the story is connected with the familiar Wizard of Oz story. We find out how Elphaba became the "Wicked Witch of the West" and how the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow came to be. Elphaba utters the famous "there's no place like home" catchphrase for a little laugh.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the cleverly constructed plot doesn't have many real emotional moments. I never felt like I really got to know the characters. Plot developments moved too quickly and everything was resolved too neatly.

I'm also not taken with Schwartz's score. I liked the songs "No One Mourns the Wicked," "What is this Feeling?," and "Defying Gravity." The last song is my favorite and absolutely amazing on the original cast album with Idina Menzel. It cycles through so many emotions and ends on a soaring (literally) belt. But the rest of the songs seemed like pleasant, forgettable pop tunes. I don't appreciate pop scores in musicals. Composers should do better and write more sophisticated melodies. Parker and Mauzey sang well, but Parker doesn't have the belt required for a show-stopping Elphaba.

Some critics have accused Wicked of being overly commercialized. That is true to some extent. The set and costumes are eye-catching (and probably extremely expensive). The pop tunes and relatively conventional plot are designed to appeal to the general public. It's hard to say that Wicked offers any sophistication to the experienced theatre goer. However, most theatre lovers grew up on "popular" stuff. I started with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Miserables. These musicals are frequently panned for their over-commercialization, but hey it got me into musicals, right? Sadly, we will never go back to the days of Rodgers & Hammerstein where musicals were mainstream and sophisticated. (People forget that works like Oklahoma were revolutionary for their time.) It's hard to get the attention of kids today, so you need some glam and glitter. One could do worse that Wicked as an introduction to musicals.

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