Taking Oz for a Spin

L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was first published in 1900. It was the first of fourteen books that he would write about his Oz universe. The book was turned into plays and, of course, the classic 1939 motion picture. After more than a century, you would think that Americans had plumbed the Oz universe for all it is worth. Not so, as those of us who have seen the hit Broadway musical Wicked can attest.

Last week I got my opportunity to see the touring company of Wicked at the Oriental Theater in downtown Chicago. The touring company stars Ana Gasteyer (of Saturday Night Live!) as the Wicked Witch of the West and Kate Reinders as the good witch Glinda.

I came into the musical cold but with an open mind. I had heard none of its music and knew nothing of its plot. So it is a pleasure to report that Wicked (as its sales figures attest) is a terrific musical that succeeds on almost every level. Having not seen the Broadway production I cannot compare that cast with this touring cast. However, I can say that with the exception of a minor character or two the performances in the touring version were very well done.

As you would expect the staging is spectacular. (Wicked deservedly won Tony Awards for costume and set design). As for the music, it hits many high water marks. While some of the songs are not terribly memorable, when a song hits a high note it often does so brilliantly. For me, “Defying Gravity”, which concludes Act 1, was the highpoint of the show. It is Broadway at its best: song, spectacle and acting all interwoven into one piece that, like its title suggests, soars far into the stratosphere.

Those expecting another retelling of the classic story are going to be disappointed. Dorothy, Toto and the rest of the gang do appear tangentially. Rather than retell that well-known tale, this musical focuses in on the relationship between Glinda and Elphaba (a.k.a. The Wicked Witch of the West). Much of it occurs long before Dorothy shows up. In this version Dorothy is an offstage presence who is manipulated by both Glinda and Elphaba to effect some big changes in Oz.

Wicked presents a delightful and frankly far more satisfying alternate version of Oz. Elphaba is not quite as wicked as she appears (in fact, she is something of an environmentalist). As for Glinda, or “Guh-Linda” as she prefers to be known through much of the musical, she is deliberately portrayed as a shallow, sincere but kindhearted bubble-headed blonde. Both Ms. Gasteyer and Ms. Reinders shine in their respective roles. The heart of this story centers on Elphaba. She may be green, but she is shown to be a complex woman who happens to have some unusual talents. Ms. Gasteyer does a marvelous job of bringing out the complexity of her character. Glinda may be one dimensional, but no one will say that about Elphaba.

In fact, Wicked pulls off a neat trick. It retells the tired Oz tale into a form that is fun, intriguing and keeps you guessing. Plots are turned inside out. The result is a story that is much more interesting and far more compelling than the comparatively cartoonish quality of the original story. If you cannot come to New York to see the Broadway version, I am confident you will be fully enchanted with the touring company version. We found it well worth seeing, even if we were reduced to obstructed view seats. In fact, I plan to see it again when it comes to Washington, D.C. (This time we will get much better seats.)

Correction 8/25/05: Wicked in Chicago is not a touring show. It shows exclusively in Chicago.

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