Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Wicked' captivates (still) in Appleton

Fox Cities Performing Arts Center

APPLETON, Wis. - The boldness of “Wicked” is bewitching.

It is bold to take bits of the story of “The Wizard of Oz” and shape it into a saga many times deeper.

It is bold to present audiences lessons in life – about bias, about history/truth, about acceptance, about selfishness/selflessness, about rejection, about need of approval – and pass it off as entertainment that audiences will love.

It is bold as an exceptional expression of a great American cultivation – musical theater. Story, song/music and dance/movement are fused to tell a multitude of thoughts and expression in condensed moments in time.

It is bold to bring a touring production of the show that premiered on Broadway in 2003 into Fox Cities Performing Arts Center for a fourth time for a 16-performance run in the 2,100-seat Thrivent Financial Hall and expect to draw throngs. Throngs it is: I’m guessing somewhere around 30,000 people total will see “Wicked” on this visit to Appleton. The payoff is in the million$$$.

The tremendous pull of “Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz” continues to feel fresh.

Of course, many audience members are new to seeing the show. They have heard about it for years, and now they are experiencing it for the first time. Other people are returning; how else is there to explain the cheers for the arrival of the wicked witch Elphaba on Wednesday night at the PAC? Some people cheered knowing what Elphaba represents – against-all-odds resistance, smarts, heart, soul and sheer feistiness.

This and that other stuff:

+ Two personalities drive the story, and the performers playing those personalities are top-flight talented for all they do. Glinda is goody-goody sweet until push comes to shove. She’s played by Ginna Claire Mason, who molds nuances of voice and body (like a swift and high leg lift to accent a perky word). Elphaba automatically off-turns people with her green skin and bristly mouth until she lets known her warmth. She’s played by Jessica Vosk, a spitfire all around. Whether in solo or as a duet, Mason and Vosk sing in tight and soaring ways. They make a compelling team. The roles are huge, requiring energy akin to that delivered by pro athletes performance after performance. Elphaba literally rises above with full-out, heart-torn singing, notably in “Defying Gravity” that ends Act I in a wowing rush.

+ At 2¾ hours, “Wicked” is long and dense.

+ The overall production is excellent, with a company that’s strong and deep.

+ Twisted turns of love/relationships surface throughout. Elphaba’s father had a bad time of it. The dashing, vainglorious Fiyero at first seems “deeply shallow” (his self-description) in keeping with the adoring Glinda, but eventually is pulled to Elphaba, and she to him. Boq, a Munchkin, is caught in Glinda’s glowing mist and is nice to handicapped Nessarose as a way to earn Glinda’s favor. Cupid has run out of straight arrows for this story.  

+ The show layers in familiar bits from “The Wizard of Oz.” Such phrases as “no place like home” and “my pretty” take on new meaning. At the same time, “Wicked” stands apart. It has a story and songs of its own.

+ “Wicked” explains the origins of the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” – each story with something dark and painful about it. “Wicked” explains the origins of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the tornado that blew the house down upon Elphaba’s misdirected sister, Nessarose.

+ Human frailties abound in the story – familiar territory for composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, one of the marvels of musical theater in our time. Schwartz also was key in bringing the searching “Pippin” and, especially, “Godspell” to life.

+ Shhh, don’t tell anybody, but there are elements of opera’s complexities in “Wicked.” The multiple voices popping up like popcorn from different parts of the stage and then forming a whole in the opening “No One Mourns the Wicked” is an example of ensemble trickiness. Glinda and Elphaba sing the same words from different perspectives – an operatic technique – in such notable instances of their early mutual loathing and in the climactic “For Good,” in which they sing in gloriously intricate and beautiful ways this line: “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

+ Dazzle is much a part of “Wicked.” Glinda arrives from above the stage, easing into view in a circular contraption with bubbles bubbling all around. Two dancers “fly” in one scene, two monkeys “fly” in another. Elphaba is lifted to the heights in “Defying Gravity” amid beams of light. Nessarose’s wheelchair spins as if on its own. A knot of performers arrives on a small staircase that glides as if of its own mind. The “denizens” of Emerald City are dressed as if 18-wheelers filled with sequins spilled out, and all wear dark glasses for all the glitter.

+ Each person (of all ages) seeing “Wicked” develops his or her own take on this swirl of action and story. What becomes common are huge rushes of cheers and excitement that burst out in certain scenes. The ENERGY that erupts is impressive.

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – Stephen Schwartz; book – Winnie Holzman, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire; director – Joe Mantello; musical staging – Wayne Cilento; music supervisor – William David Brohn; settings – Eugene Lee; costumes – Susan Hilferty; lighting – Kenneth Posner; sound – Tony Meola; projections – Elaine J. McCarthy; wigs and hair – Tom Watson; dance arrangements – James Lynn Abbott; music coordinator – Michael Keller; special effects – Chic Silber; associate choreographer – Corinne McFadden Herrera

Cast (order of appearance): Glinda – Ginna Claire Mason; Witch’s Father – Wayne Schroder; Witch’s Mother – Kerry Blanchard (8/30 Kelly Lafarga); Midwife – Tregoney Shepherd; Elphaba – Jessica Vosk; Nessarose – Catherine Charlebois; Boq – Sam Seferian; Madame Morrible – Isabel Keating; Doctor Dillamond – Harry Bouvy; Fiyero – Jon Robert Hall (8/30 Anthony Sagaria); Ozian Official – Wayne Schroder; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – Tom McGowan; Chistery – Chase Madigan; Monkeys, Students, Denizens of the Emerald City, Palace Guards and Other Citizens of Oz – Allison Bailey, Kerry Blanchard, Beka Burnham, Lauren Cannon, Michael Drolet, Ryan Patrick Farrell, Sara Gonzales, Chris Jarosz, John Krause, Tiffany Rae Mallari, Matt Meigs, Olivia Polci, Anthony Sagaria, Melissa Legaspi, Tregoney Shepherd, Justin Wirick

Traveling orchestra: Conductor – Dan Micciche; associate conductor/keyboard 2 – Flint Hawes; keyboard 1 – Adam McDonald; keyboard 3 – Phillip Kirchman; guitars – Dave Boguslaw, drums – Tim Mulligan

Local musicians: reed 1 – Marc Jimos; reed 2 – Jennifer Bryan; reed 3 – Richard Tengowski; trumpet – Brent Turney; French horn – Bruce Atwell; trombone – Dave Sawall; keyboard 4 – Kent Paulsen; percussion – Scott Elford; sub keyboard 2 – Jayne Latva; local contractor – Melissa Gurholt

Running time: 2¾ hours

Remaining performances (check availability): 7:30 p.m. Aug. 31, Sept. 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9; 2 p.m. Aug. 31, Sept. 2, 9; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 3 and 10 

Info: foxcitiespac.org

***

Musical numbers

Act I

“No One Mourns the Wicked” – Glinda and Citizens of Oz

“Dear Old Shiz” – Students

“The Wizard and I” – Madame Morrible and Elphaba

“What Is This Feeling?” – Galinda, Elphaba and Students

“Something Bad” – Doctor Dillamond and Elphaba

“Dancing Through Life” – Fiyero, Galinda, Boq, Nessarose, Elphaba and Students

“Popular” – Galinda

“I’m Not That Girl” – Elphaba

“One Short Day” – Elphaba, Glinda and Citizens of the Emerald City

“A Sentimental Man” – The Wizard

“Defying Gravity” – Elphaba, Glinda, Guards and Citizens of Oz

Act II

“No One Mourns the Wicked” (Reprise) – Citizens of Oz

“Thank Goodness” – Glinda, Madame Morrible and Citizens of Oz

“The Wicked Witch of the East” – Elphaba, Nessarose and Boq

“Wonderful” – The Wizard and Elphaba

“I’m Not That Girl” (Reprise) – Glinda

“As Long as You’re Mine” – Elphaba and Fiyero

“No Good Deed” – Elphaba

“March of the Witch Hunters” – Boq and Citizens of Oz

“For Good” – Glinda and Elphaba

“Finale: For Good” (Reprise) – All

***

THE VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls up to the chandelier are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. Flat walls in the front third of the hall are salmon colored, while red pleated theatrical curtains dominate the rest of the side walls. The white acoustic wing over the stage looks like the underside of a sci-fi spacecraft. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

THE NAME: Thrivent Financial has roots in a life insurance company that was chartered in 1902 as Aid Association for Lutherans, based in Appleton. The corporate name has been Thrivent since 2002.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.


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