By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The partial collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel under construction in New Orleans on Saturday, October 12, sent tons of debris and a crane across the street impacting the historic Saenger Theater building, where the national tour of Wicked was being housed. With street closures around the complex due to two unsecured cranes and a mandatory evacuation of the area by city officials, producers were forced to cancel all remaining performances in New Orleans, effectively leaving millions of dollars in refunds to be made.
Ever since 2010, like clockwork, the national tour of Wicked, the Broadway juggernaut breaking box office records at the Gershwin Theatre in New York, had managed to land in New Orleans for an extended stay. This unforeseen tragedy has now sent cast members packing and engineering and technical staff scurrying to find ways to load out the show while the two remaining cranes hang perilously in the air, each potentially in danger of crashing to the street.
Wicked first arrived in New Orleans in the days before the reopening of the Saenger Theater, while the city was still recovering from the ill effects of Hurricane Katrina. Based on its sellouts that first time, producers decided to elongate the show’s second stay in 2013 into an unprecedented period of three weeks. Box office records were smashed then and those records were broken again in 2016 at the Saenger, although the recent national tour of Hamilton established a newer record.
With music by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, Wicked’s massive set fit nicely into the environs of the Saenger with its Roman forum motif. But the stars that audiences paid attention to were not the twinkling lights on its ceiling, but the two leading ladies on stage, Talia Suskauer, who played the green-skinned Elphaba, and Allison Bailey, the goody-good Glinda. It is a shame that the duo are being pre-empted by this tragedy that killed at least two construction workers and injured 18.
Based on the 1995 Gregory Malguire novel, Wicked is a retelling of the L. Frank Baum children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the first and most successful of his series of 14 books centered on the fictional land or its characters. Malguire’s book “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” retold the story from the perspective of the two sister witches, Elphaba and Nessarose, and their contemporary, Glinda.
Malguire’s book sales piqued the interest of film producer Marc Platt, who envisioned a movie based on it, and he optioned the rights. Platt was on his second rewrite when Schwartz began to petition him to reconsider the project as a stage musical rather than a non-musical work of cinema. It took a lot of lawyers and convincing over a period a year, but eventually the film was dropped and the musical began to be developed.
Schwartz’s grand music of “No One Mourns the Wicked” opens the show in spectacular fashion with Bailey descending on a giant steel-reinforced “bubble,” the very same one used by Chenowith in her debut as Glinda almost exactly 19 years ago. The chorus of Munchkins and other inhabitants of Oz cheer the downfall of the Witch of the West, “the wickedest witch there ever was” and entreat Glinda to answer “why does Wickedness happen?”
Her simplistic answer to her adoring Oznians allows for the origin story of the very witch whose downfall they are celebrating – Elphaba. We learn how she is the product of an affair between her mother, the wife of the Governor of Munchkinland, and a shadowy figure who plies her with a shiny green intoxicant in his absence. And, of course, when the baby is born, she is a fantastic shade of green.
After having born the scorn of her parents and now playing caretaker to her invalid sister at Oz’s concept of college, Elphaba should be angry and resentful. Yet, she is largely well-adjusted and professes big dreams in “The Wizard and I” of meeting the Wizard of Oz, whom she imagines is a wise and magnificent figure. Unlike the flat, one-dimensional characters depicted in Baum’s books of more than a century ago, the characters in Wicked are fully developed and generally opposite what we see in their origin story.
In Holzman’s book and through Schwartz’s music, we learn that the “good” Galinda (later renamed Glinda) is really a self-obsessed narcissist with illusions of grandeur. When she is unexpectedly paired with the “wicked” Elphaba, she begins a slow process in which she will eventually be transformed into a real caring person. Elphaba also undergoes a journey in which she begins to question all that she has been previously told, especially where the Wizard is concerned.
But before all of that happens, there is an unexpected bonding between green and blonde that begins with their mutual loathing in “What Is This Feeling?” and becomes obvious in “Popular,” wherein Galinda makes Elphaba her personal project.
As Glinda, Bailey’s vocals were brilliant and shimmering with a lovely coloratura. Suskauer’s powerful and emotional dramatic soprano for Elphaba provided an approrpriate counterbalance. The two make an exquisitely mellifluous pair in several numbers, notably Act One’s finale “Defying Grafity” and the show’s remarkable 11th hour number “For Good.”
Playing the role of the Wizard was Tony Award winner Cleavant Derricks (Dreamgirls), who professed to be just “A Sentimental Man,” but who we learn is not quite the wonderful wizard we had been led to be believed. In Act II’s “Wonderful” he attempted to explain his position and standing in Oz as mere happenstance and chance. We learned that there was a much more complicated man underneath that wizard’s hat. Derricks did a creditable job, imbuing the Wizard with a more laid back charm not seen with previous touring Wizards such as John Davidson or Stuart Zagnit.
Although not fully explained in Holtzman’s book, the land of Oz is inhabited by Animals, who possess intelligence and speech, as opposed to domesticated dumb animals. A plot is unveiled when Dr. Dillamond (Tom Flynn), an Animal professor becomes the object of persecution by unseen forces.
An investigation to determine the cause of this campaign leads Elphaba and Glinda to choose differing paths on how to respond and provided emotional underpinning.
As Fiyero, Curt Hansen was the object of desire of both Elphaba and Glinda, while Nessarose fancied Boq, played by DJ Plunkett. Boq was torn between his having to care for Elphaba’s invalid sister Nessarose in Elphaba’s absence and his secret longing to be paired with Glinda. Hansen and Suskauer enjoyed one particularly enjoyable pairing in the love duet “As Long As You’re Mine.”
Sharon Sachs rounded out the cast as Madame Morrible, a commanding performance in her supporting role.
Nine local musicians joined conductor Adam Souza and his corps of five members comprising the show’s traveling orchestra. Their rich sound filled the cavernous Saenger Theater at every performance with faithful renditions of William David Bohn’s orchestrations of Schwartz’s original score supervised by Stephen Oremus.
Abruptly canceled, Wicked had been slated to perform through October 20 at the Saenger Theater. Refunds are being issued through the Saenger Theater for season subscribers and through Ticketmaster for those who purchased tickets online. The Saenger Box Office remains closed until further notice, but once the building is out of danger, officials will allow regular business to be conducted through its phones at 504-525-1052. The national tour continues in Atlanta on October 23.