A joint review by Sentinel & Morgana Lefay.For the first time since visiting New York in 1998, we went to see a Broadway musical. The one we selected was “Wicked,” based on the eponymous book by Gregory Maguire. Having just finished reading the novel about the history of the Emerald City of Oz before Dorothy (Ellie, to all of you «Волшебник Изумрудного Города» readers) has crushed in, we did not know what to expect of this musical.
Maguire’s book raised a number of themes not typical for a fantasy book (i.e. religious fanaticism vs. pagan hysteria, marginalization of talking animals a la the Third Reich, tyranny and deception, martyrdom and powerlessness of the main characters, etc.). Yet, this was not an action packed book, and at the end, it left us with a heavy, unsettling aftertaste. Now, musicals are by definition supposed to be light and pleasant, so we were eager to see how the producers of “Wicked” on Broadway have resolved this conundrum.
“Wicked” plays at the Gershwin Theatre, one of the largest on Broadway and reminiscent of the Concert Hall at the Kremlin. The production scale is very Broadway—i.e. huge dragons rolling their eyes and necks, monkeys flying, great lighting effects, good decorations, expensive-looking costumes, and a big live orchestra. Just like in a book, the main character is Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. The show begins with Glinda, the Good Witch, announcing the death of the “WWW” (“Bastinda” to the above-mentioned Russian translation fans) to a crowd of Munchkins fawning upon her. When confronted with being a friend of the Wicked Witch, Glinda relives her school days at the Academy of Shiz, and that portion of the show is an inspired mix of “Harry Potter” and “Legally Blonde.” Act 2 is more dramatic, featuring state oppression in Oz, the culmination of a love triangle, a betrayal, Elphaba’s self-sacrifice, and a surprising ending.
The dialogues throughout the show are very well written, witty, and funny, and the acting, singing, and dancing are solid. The plot differs from the book, and this simplified version of Wicked is actually more palatable and makes more sense than all the ambivalence and ambiguity in the book. The show hit the nail on its head in terms of explaining the motivation of the characters’ actions and made the Glinda / Elphaba link more dynamic. In addition, the story of how the Scarecrow (“Strashila”) came about (that was not in the book) was probably the most emotional part of the musical.
In fact, it’s surprising to see the play this deep on the mainstream Broadway stage. “Hairspray,” “Spamelot,” “Mamma Mia,” Spelling Bee” and “Lion King” it is not. No need to check your brain at the door. The different look on the characters familiar to all of us since childhood, the motivations behind their actions, and the moral choices presented in the story truly go beyond mere entertainment. It was certainly pleasing to see the hall packed to the brim on a week night.
But despite all the plot twists and emotional content, we are talking about a musical here, and musicals are supposed to be all about the music: catchy tunes that one can whistle after the show is over. Unfortunately, the music in Wicked is background and forgettable. It is not bad or annoying, but it does nothing to enhance the story and it falls so short of everything else in the production. So, maybe they should have gone with Abba songs or better yet with the good ol’ Gershwin music at the Gershwin theatre.
To summarize, we are not sorry for spending $80/a pop for this show (you get the last row of the center balcony seats for this price – you can see everything very well, but if you’d like to see the faces of the actors, you should bring the binoculars), but would not pay $250 for premium seats.