Theater Review: Wicked

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

There’s a moment toward the middle of “Wicked,” the popular musical playing at DPAC tonight through May 27, when it all comes together.

As the music swells, Elphaba the Wicked Witch (Christine Dwyer) appears to levitate to the top of the proscenium via concealed wires and clever stagecraft. Below, the ensemble dancers swirl, and the musicians pull out all the stops. Above, a giant clockwork dragon roars and the strobed spotlights kick into overdrive.

Holding aloft her magic broom, Dwyer finishes the show’s signature song, “Defying Gravity,” with a powerhouse final note as the lights cut out. After an instant of stunned silence, the DPAC cheers come in waves.

These are the moments you’re paying for with a show like “Wicked,” returning to Durham for a encore run after a series of sold-out shows in 2010. And with ticket prices running up to $170, these moments need to deliver. For the most part, they do. “Wicked” is top-shelf theatrical entertainment almost by definition. A touring show of this magnitude draws the industry’s best performers and designers, and the story and songs proved their staying power long ago.

For the uninitiated, “Wicked” is a prequel of sorts to the “Wizard of Oz.” Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, it’s a creative and quasi-feminist re-imagining in which the Wicked Witch is the heroine, the Good Witch is a pawn, the Wizard is a crook and Dorothy is an afterthought.

Story-wise, the musical departs significantly from the book’s postmodern fantasy ambitions. But the basics remain, shuffled to satisfy the requirement of this particular style of musical theater: broad themes, dramatic conflicts and catchy songs with intricate, in-rhyming lyrics.

In the lead, Dwyer delivers the goods with great comic instincts and that piledriver voice. (Dwyer understudied the role in the 2010 run.) She also successfully sells the character’s transformation from geeky green student to imperious flying witch. Character motivations in “Wicked” can be a bit complex – “baffling” is the less charitable term – but Dwyer does what she can to provide a clear throughline.

As the goody-goody Glinda, Tiffany Haas holds her own and provides the proper counterpoint notes. The show depends heavily on the energy between the two leads, and Dwyer and Haas navigate the big duets and story moments with a practiced ease.

With one conspicuous exception. “Popular,” another of the musical’s showcase numbers, is a pivotal scene that features a song with a totally killer hook. (Kanye West even managed to turn a sample from the song into a hip-hop sensation). This scene is meant to crackle and pop, but – in the Thursday night performance at least – it fizzled and flopped.

The show has maybe two or three similarly underwhelming moments, but overall there’s really nothing to complain about. The stage design and especially the costuming are artful and more than a little weird. The ensemble Ozlanders dress in a mad riot of outfits that suggest a collision of Victorian finery and disco Zoot suits.

In any case, Thursday night’s DPAC crowd seemed well-satisfied indeed, including the many younger attendees. Outside the lobby, one cluster of tween girls took turns imitating Glinda’s patented hair-tossing move and raving about their night out together at the theater. Nothing wrong with that.

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