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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Wicked’ luster radiates big time again in Appleton

Critic At Large

Fox Cities Performing Arts Center

“Wicked” show trailer parked outside Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, Oct. 27, 2021. (Warren Gerds)

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – So, what have fans of big shows been missing?

+ Being dazzled, for one.

Early in “Wicked” is a bit with a wheelchair that seems to operate on its own – doing a spin in the middle of the stage and finishing with whisps of fog. Seeing that in person brings wonder.

+ The roar of the crowd, for another. That follows another kind of dazzling – a leading voice in the show (Talia Suskauer as Elphaba) soaring in a clear, dynamic solo that’s met with a CHEER so enthusiastic that she seems smitten.

+ Hearing – live – a perky voice owned by Allison Bailey as Glinda with all kinds of whistles and bells, with perky-type moves and expressions tossed in.

“Wicked” is running at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center for the fifth time. The Mount Everest climb (almost) out of the COVID-19 pandemic makes the experience feel fresh. 

Audience members have to wear masks – no debate.

Button worn by staff of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center at performances of “Wicked.” (Warren Gerds)

Also different on opening night Wednesday, Maria Van Laanen, center president and CEO, took to the stage to welcome and thank the audience.

By the center’s count, Wednesday was 612 days since Thrivent Hall held an audience for a touring Broadway show.

By the center’s count, Wednesday was 612 days since Thrivent Hall held an audience for a touring Broadway show. At the end, goody-goody Glinda says, “Fellow Ozians, we’ve been through a frightening time.” The reference is to the story on stage, but it echoes the one about 600-something COVID days outside. Either way, the production of “Wicked” is sharp and crisp.

The musical from Broadway whiz Stephen Schwartz is bold and bewitching.

It is bold to take bits of the beloved 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… and cheer and give standing ovations at the end.

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

For the center, it is bold to bring in a touring production of a show that premiered on Broadway in 2003 in for a fifth time – and for 24 performances to boot. The tremendous pull of “Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz” continues.

Just as in 2017, a character was greeted with applause – Elphaba, the green one, who is a symbol for so much: against-all-odds resistance, smarts, heart, soul and sheer feistiness. Interestingly, the audience instantly sends a message the performer: “You have big shoes to fill.”

This and that:

++ Two personalities drive the story, and the performers playing those personalities are top-flight talent for all they do and how they do it. Glinda is goody-two-shoes sweet until push comes to shove. She’s portrayed by Allison Bailey, who molds special bits of voice and body, like a swift leg kick to accent a cute word. Elphaba automatically off-turns people in the story with her green skin and bristly, straightforward mouth until she lets known her warmth. She’s played by Talia Suskauer, a spitfire all around. Whether in solo or as a duet, Allison Bailey and Talia Suskauer sing in tight and sensational 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. Wednesday, the house filled with a roar.

++ In 2017, Allison Bailey performed in the ensemble of the “Wicked” production that visited the PAC. The 2017 Glinda, Ginna Claire Mason, today is playing Glinda in the Broadway production.

++ At 2 ¾ hours, “Wicked” is long and complex.

++ Twisted turns in love/relationships surface. Elphaba’s father had a bad time of it, some self-inflicted. The dashing, vainglorious Fiyearo 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. There’s reference to a girl and her little dog, called “Yoyo” in this case by Glinda. 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 of “The Wizard of Oz.” Each story has something dark and painful about it. “Wicked” explains the origins of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the tornado that blew down the house 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, Stephen Schwartz also was key in bringing the searching “Pippin” and, especially, “Godspell” to life.

++ Shhh, don’t tell anybody, but there are elements of the complexities of opera 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 the latter, they sing in gloriously intricate and beautiful ways this line: “Because I knew you, I have changed for good.”

++ Razzmatazz is much a part of “Wicked.” Glinda arrives from above the stage, easing into view in a circular contraption with luster all around her persona and the mechanism. Images of large-scale mechanical devices – lots of gears as if in a clock or the guts of a giant machine – fill the stage in scene after scene. Elphaba is lifted to the heights in “Defying Gravity” amid beams of radiance. The “denizens” of Emerald City are dressed as if 18-wheelers filled with sequins spilled an avalanche of glitter-ies, and all wear sunglasses for all the glare.

++ Each person (of all ages) seeing “Wicked” develops his or her own take on this swirl of action and story. What becomes common are rushes of cheers and excitement that burst out of certain scenes. The ENERGY that erupts is impressive – what fans of big shows at Fox Cities PAC have been missing.


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

Cast (in order of appearance):

Glinda – Allison Bailey (a returnee from ensemble of 2017 production)

Witch’s Father – Wayne Schroder (a returnee from 2017 production)

Witch’s Mother – Marina Lazzaretto

Midwife – Megan Loomis

Elphaba – Talia Suskauer

Nessarose – Amanda Fallon Smith

Boq – DJ Plunkett

Madam Morrible – Sharon Sachs

Doctor Dillamond – Clifton Davis

Fiyero – Curt Hansen

Oziam Official – Wayne Schroeder

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – Cleavant Derricks

Chistery – Travante S. Baker

Monkeys, Students, Denizens of the Emerald City, Palace Guards and Other Citizens of Oz – Nick Burrage, Jordan Casanova, Matt Densky, Marie Eife, Ryan Patrick Farrell (returnee from 2017 production), Sara Gonzales (returnee from 2017 production), Marina Lazzaretto, Jordan Litz, Megan Loomis, Hayden Milanes, Jennafer Newberry, Alicia Newcom, Jackie Raye, Rebecca Gans Reavis, Andy Richardson, Justin Wirik

Standby for Elphaba – Natalia Vivino

Traveling orchestra: Conductor – Evan Roider; associate conductor/keyboard 2 – Derek Shorter; keyboard 1 – Evan Zavada; keyboard 3 – Dani Lee Hutch; guitars – Nick Ujhazy; drums – Tim Mulligan

Local musicians: Reed 1 – Mark Jimos; reed 2 – Andrea Gross Hixon; reed 3 – Rich Tengowski; horn – Bruce Atwell; trombone – Dave Sawall; trumpet/flugelhorn – Brent Turney; bass – Mark Urness; percussion – Scott Elford; keyboard 4 – Nick Towns; sub keyboard 2 – Vincent Fuh; local contractor – Melissa Gurholt


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 Denizens 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


Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes

Remaining performances: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 30; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 31; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2, 3, 4, 5; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, 10, 11, 12; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 14


The center’s COVID-19 statement: “All staff and patrons ages 2 and older are required to wear masks while inside of the venue and not actively eating or drinking. Masks must fully cover the nose, mouth, and chin. Prolonged periods of mask removal will not be tolerated and patrons who do not comply will be escorted from the facility with no re-entry.” 


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.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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