Onstage: Review: Wicked

Whiz-bang show is subversive in the best way

Jan 11, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Joan Marcus

The land of Oz comes alive in Wicked, currently at the Aronoff Center.

For all those parents of teenage girls who are scrambling (perhaps too late) to score a ticket for Wicked at the Aronoff Center, I have a message: This is a subversive show. And not just because the central character is green. (Al Gore had nothing to do with this, by the way.)

It's not even because this story of the Land of Oz from the other end of the telescope is shamelessly spectacular in the most manipulative of ways. (Coming around from behind the massive mechanical head that roars, glows, steams and invokes fear, the Wizard proclaims, "People expect this sort of thing, and we have to give people what they want." That's a coda for most shows on Broadway and their touring versions at performing arts centers across America. It doesn't necessarily mean such shows are good — only that they live up to popular expectations.)

Nor do I suggest that Wicked is subversive because the phenomenally popular musical focuses on young women struggling to assert their independence and find paths to maturity. The competition between Elphaba, later and better known as the Wicked Witch of the West (Carmen Cusack), and Glinda the Good (Katie Rose Clark) stems from adolescent rivalries over popularity and a boyfriend. But it becomes a philosophical battle between good and evil in which the distinction is not black and white.

Wicked's true subversion is the revelation of the cynical mindsets of those in power. First we learn that animals, once able to speak in the Land of Oz, are being marginalized as dangerous enemies. (A goat professor at the school attended by Elphaba and Glinda finds a threat scrawled on a blackboard: "Animals should be seen and not heard.")

We learn that the Wizard (Lee Wilkof) consolidated power by intentionally "creating a really good enemy." Unfortunately for Elphaba, she becomes an even more obvious, ready and focused target for the Wizard and his vicious press secretary, Madame Morrible (Alma Cuervo).

Listen carefully to Morrible's rhetoric as she proclaims the dangers represented by an assertive young woman, and you'll hear strains of patriotic claptrap used to motivate unthinking populations throughout history. They're the "lies they wanted to hear," it's cynically observed.

These messages make Wicked feel all the more grown-up and perhaps explains additionally why the show is so phenomenally popular with young audiences.

It seems like a whiz-bang Broadway extravaganza, which it is. You'll seldom see such costumes (Susan Hilferty is the designer), sets (by the legendary Eugene Lee) or lighting (Kenneth Posner), and the special effects — from Glinda arriving in a cloud of bubbles (and platitudes) to Elphaba taking flight in the rousing Act I finale, "Defying Gravity" — are the most breath-taking package on tour today.

Cusack's Elphaba could use more texture, but she totally nails her pragmatic bluntness. Clark gives Glinda the necessary egocentricity and zany verve without totally mimicking Kristen Chenoweth, who originated the role. Cuervo's take on the horrible Morrible is distinctive, making full use of malapropisms, and Wilkof's dithering Wizard is a man who's way beyond his depth.

The hard-working company plays multiple roles and must change costumes a half-dozen times in each act.

If you talk to kids who've seen Wicked, listen carefully. They'll likely go on about powerful singing and amazing sets, but planted in the backs of their minds are questions about authority and the foundation for "regime change." That questioning of authority is a healthy result from a piece of popular entertainment.

Critic's Pick

WICKED, presented by Broadway in America at the Aronoff Center downtown, continues through Feb. 3. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.