Theatre Review: ‘Wicked’ at the Fox Theatre

About every 75 years Halley’s Comet visits the earth, or becomes visible, and everyone notices. Atlanta can do without the Broadway mega-musical “Wicked” for about four years; then we start having withdrawal symptoms, as it were, and need our fix.

Well, rejoicify, Atlanta (as Glinda would say); “Wicked” is back and ready to pack the Fox Theatre again, this time running through Nov. 17. And it’s as thrilling as ever.

That’s saying a lot. Why do only a very few shows achieve such acclaim and success? The answer, I think, involves all the eerie mysteries of enchantment itself, a strange wizardry that occurs when a play speaks to the times and touches a chord in people’s minds and hearts. Whatever else may be said, “Wicked” is not just a story for children.

We know that it all started with L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The classic 1939 film starring Judy Garland (and others) caught the magic and passed it on.

In 1995 novelist Gregory Maguire’s retelling of the Wicked Witch of the West (“such a lot happened before Dorothy dropped in,” as ads for the show say) started the Broadway gods thinking; and on Oct. 30, 2003, “Wicked,” the musical, opened on Broadway at the 1900-seat Gershwin Theatre (the biggest in town) where it has held court in sellout style ever since.

One more factoid for you: In March 2016, “Wicked” surpassed $1 billion in total Broadway revenue (this does not include lucrative world tours), joining “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Lion King” in this very exclusive club.

What could justify such success? Australia’s John Bailey of “The Age” writes: “Wicked” has it all—the glitz and glamor and smiles, the anthemic tunes and mind-boggling sets. It also has a brain.” It has even more: Starting with an unlikely friendship between two young women, undercurrents of truth run through the show; the nature of good and evil and our unfortunate tendency to label people (“She’s good.” “She’s wicked!) and ideas; seeing through sham; the power of enduring friendship.

Beyond all this, “Wicked” is enormous fun—for little girls in the audience dressed as Elphaba or Glinda, and for thinking adults. It insults no one’s intelligence; it’s too witty and self-knowing for that.

We’re in Oz, you know. Glinda (Allison Bailey), pretty, spoiled and “Popular,” meets Elphaba (Talia Suskauer) an emerald-skinned brainy young woman with a social conscience; they have an instant attack of “unadulterated loathing” (“What Is This Feeling?”) for each other. However, forced to be college roommates, they become friends, and ultimately—to their credit—best friends (“For Good”).

This is very important: The fact that people can change is a strong, recurring theme. And even though both girls are smitten with the handsome Fiyero (Curt Hansen), who’s decided that “life’s more painless for the brainless” (“Dancing Through Life”), Elphaba and Glinda’s friendship remains. By the way, Fiyero changes, too.

Still think “Wicked” is just a frolic? Consider that the show touches on the following themes, lightly, but definitely: racism, fascism (Dr. Dillamond (Tom Flynn) is kicked off the faculty because he doesn’t fit in), scapegoating, political hijinks—all this and flying monkeys!

Ah, but when Elphaba finds herself and announces her independence (“Defying Gravity”) at the end of Act I—there’s no more thrilling moment in musical theatre. When Ms. Suskauer’s soaring voice fills the theatre—goose bump time. Everyone should experience “Wicked” at least once!

The company is outstanding, led by the two leading ladies; the Wizard (Cleavant Derricks), Nessarose (Amanda Fallon Smith), Boq (DJ Plunkett), Madame Morrible (Sharon Sachs)–among many other expert singers and dancers.

The creators: Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics), Winnie Holzman (book), musical staging (Wayne Cilento—an original member of “A Chorus Line”), and direction by Joe Mantello. The live orchestra is, as expected, is first rate.

The audience was in nirvana—there were many repeat customers—one can tell. Join them.

For tickets and information, visit foxtheatre.org.

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