By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
After celebrating its 20th anniversary this past October, the juggernaut that is Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked on Broadway seems like it will never stop, still taking in weekly gross sales figures of more than $2 million dollars.
The success of this alternative retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” has also generated many national tours that have brought the musical to the New Orleans stage, most notably at the Saenger Theater, and established a record at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.
The drama and tragedy of the Hard Rock Hotel collapse that played out across the street infamously shut down the last national tour when a crane broke free and partially crashed through the Saenger Theater’s roof in 2019.
But all of that is behind us and another opportunity for New Orleans area audiences to see Wicked is here again as the musical featuring roommates – witches Elphaba and Glinda – continues at the Saenger through December 19.
In addition to Schwartz’s remarkable music and lyrics, the book by Winnie Holzman is timeless, especially resonating with tweens and teens. Based on an original novel of the same title by Gregory Maguire, the premise is to view L. Frank Baum’s classic story about the Land of Oz from the perspective of the witches rather than from that of Dorothy Gale, the Kansas girl who first journeyed there compliments of a twister.
Sharing the leading roles of Glinda and Elphaba are Celia Hottenstein and Olivia Valli, respectively. While Glinda’s voice is intended to be more classically trained, Elpahaba’s involves more belting. Both actors are quite comfortable in their roles having understudied the roles either on Broadway or during previous national tours.
Wicked begins in unusual form with the slightest of what might be regarded as overtures, employing leitmotivs for the two main leads as the residents of Oz celebrate the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. Hottenstein, as Glinda, enters in grandiose fashion, descending from a gigantic mechanical bubble in “No One Mourns the Wicked.”
Assuring the Oznians that everything is fine, Glinda answers questions about the witch’s past and the dramatic circumstances surrounding her birth as a green-skined baby. In a call and response with the crowd Hottenstein’s voice comforts them. As she is about to float off, though, she is asked by one “Is it true you were her friend?”
To the astonished gasps of the multitude, she equivocates in her answer, but then quickly acknowledges their paths did cross back in college. This device brings us into the next scene, returning to the past as both “Galinda” (as Glinda was then known) and the green-skinned Elphaba (who is now grown up) are seen arriving at Shiz University, meeting headmistress Madame Morrible (Kathy Fitzgerald) for the first time.
And the two could not be more different.
While the future Glinda considers herself a wunderkind and entitled to special consideration, Elphaba knows she is just there to look after her disapproving younger sister Nessarose, played by a wheelchair-bound Tara Kostmayer, who echoes much of the disappointment of their father, the governor of Munchkinland. But then, unexpectedly, Elphaba displays amazing powers of witchcraft that set her apart from all the others.
Valli adroitly handles Elphaba’s “I want” song, “The Wizard and I,” in which she expresses her desires to achieve good. Later, she also shines in the melancholy ballad “I’m Not That Girl” in which she secretly pines for Galinda’s beau Fiyero (Christian Thompson).
Roommates by chance, sparks begin to fly as the two try to figure out how to navigate the tricky social scene at Shiz University. In “Popular,” Hottenstein has fun trying to determine how to pull off a makeover for Elphaba. One of the more whimsical of Schwartz’s songs, the banter between the two shows they are capable of letting down their guards to one another. The two begin to bond.
After a memorable “One Short Day” in the Emerald City, we are introduced to The Wizard. Timothy Shew excels in his role and puts his own spin on the two numbers in which he has center stage “A Sentimental Man” in Act I and the delightful and endearing “Wonderful” in Act II. Of course, as it turns out there’s not a lot to be endearing about this mysterious man, who appears to be more of an opportunist than a truly menacing figure. Shew plays the part with just a hint of sinister intentions, allowing the audience to withhold judgment on his behavior for much of the work.
By the time the thrilling “Defying Gravity” is sung by Ephaba with support from Glinda, the guards and citizens of Oz as the first act closing number, there is a definite path away from the influence of The Wizard. Elphaba has determined that she must do things differently than expected and in the song invites Glinda to join with her. Glinda reluctantly turns her down.
In Act II as Elphaba plans a course of action against the powers that be, namely Madame Morrible and The Wizard, she has an opportunity to revisit her sister Nessarose and Boq (Kyle McArthur), a Munchkin who is secretly in love with Glinda. In the song “The Wicked Witch of the East,” Nessarose attempts to keep Boq with her by employing magic that goes awry.
This leads to Elphaba having to flee, but along the way she finds an unexpected ally in Fiyero, the captain of the guard. After Elphaba and he escape, the lilting “As Long As You’re Mine” is sung as a duet by the two, who declare their love for one another, albeit not before there is a tragic outcome.
Two notable songs help with the resolution of Act II: “No Good Deed,” a solo by Elphaba and the duet between Glinda and Elphaba, “For Good.” Perhaps more than any other song in the musical “For Good” gives the audience a sense of true bonding between the two and is a masterful recapitulation of all that went before.
Directed by Joe Mantello with musical staging by Wayne Cilento, Wicked features large ensemble scenes that fill the massive set designed by Eugene Lee. Spectacular costumes are by Susan Hilferty. Tremendous lighting is by Kenneth Posner and impressive sound design is by Tony Meola. Alex Lacamoire and Stephen Oremus arranged the music with orchestrations by William David Brohn and Michael Keller serving as music coordinator.
Evan Roider is the music director with nine local musicians supporting his core national traveling group of xix musicians including himself. Much of the music tends to be in major keys, a departure from the norm. Various breaks in the music and recurring themes add to the enjoyment of the book by Holtzman.
Wicked stands the test of time as one of the most successful Broadway musicals on record. It continues to pack theaters on the road with its very successful national tours and still establishes huge box office at the Gershwin Theatre, the largest venue on the Great White Way,
The national tour of Wicked continues at the Saenger Theater with shows now through December 19. For tickets, click here.