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A&E: A&E goes on a road trip: 'Wicked' in the Windy City

December 3, 2007

Musical-theater buffs in Indianapolis know that an occasional trip to Chicago is a must. Savvy ticket buyers willing to schlep up Interstate 65 have gotten advance looks at such longrunning Broadway hits as "Mamma Mia!," "Aida," "Monty Python's Spamalot" and "The Producers" before they opened in New York (and years before their tours arrived here).

Right now, though, the big musical draws in Chicago-"Wicked" and "Jersey Boys"-aren't pre- but, rather, post-Broadway. And more than just stopping in the Windy City while on tour, these shows have open-ended runs, meaning they'll stay as long as tickets keep selling.

And they are selling. In a big way.

Consider this: "Wicked" has passed its 1,000th Chicago performance and is now one of the top tourist attractions of any kind in the city, with half of the audience made up of out-of-towners. Most of those report that seeing "Wicked" was their primary reason for coming to the city. How's that for cultural tourism?

I joined the crowd recently and saw both "Wicked" and "Jersey Boys"-a trip made much more pleasurable and affordable by the Megabus, the new-ish private bus system that shuttles between Indy and Chicago for as little as $1 a ride (if you book far enough in advance). An afternoon departure got me to town with plenty of time for a bite before a Tuesday evening "Wicked." And after the following day's matinee, there was breathing room to get to Union Station for a comfortable ride back-all for less than I'd have to pay for parking in Chi-town. (Of course, I had friends to stay with. You'll have to work accommodations out for yourself.)

The cost savings wouldn't matter, though, if the shows didn't justify the time.

They do. And then some.

For those unfamiliar, "Wicked" is a revisionist "Wizard of Oz" in which Elphaba, later to be labeled the Wicked Witch of the West, is the sympathetic heroine. It received mixed-to-negative reviews on Broadway (and was snubbed at the Tony Awards in favor of the smaller scale "Avenue Q") but has grown into a mega-hit that also has a fervent cult following. Don't be surprised if you see some green faces in the crowd.

"Wicked" is, to be sure, a flawed show. The first 10 minutes or so clunks along like ersatz "Evita." The choreography feels minimally invasive rather than integral and exciting. Dialogue scenes come off like third drafts rather than final products.

I could go on, but that would only cloud the fact that when Elphaba (Dee Roscioli) takes center stage and belts "The Wizard and I"-a song filled with her naive hopes for her meeting with the big guy in the Emerald City-the chills-good ones-are undeniable. These officially become goosebumps when her consciousness-and her body-is raised in the showstopper "Defying Gravity." From then on, the path to the show's climax may be as bumpy as the famed road of yellow bricks, but audiences give themselves to the journey.

What the New York critics seemed to have missed-and what they often miss-is that audiences don't go into musicals looking for perfection. No, I'm not going to say they want mere spectacle. If that were the case, the musicals "Shogun" and "Merlin" would have been huge.

What audiences do demand is a strong reason to care about a character and a strong desire to know what happens next. Some good tunes help, but the idea that you need to leave the theater able to hum the score is absurd. (I bet there weren't too many people humming "West Side Story" songs before the cast recording was available.)

Despite its shortcomings, "Wicked" delivers. It's a show that will have a long, long life not just in Chicago, but in perpetuity in theaters around the world, which I hope, includes an Indianapolis stop in the not-too-distant future. I won't be in green paint, but I'll be there.

After seeing a spate of "jukebox musicals" whose scores consisted of pre-existing songbooks (From ABBA to Elvis, Burt Bacharach to Al Jolson), I'll admit that "Jersey Boys" wasn't high on my must-see list. But relentless praise pulled me in. And I'm glad it did.

The subject is The Four Seasons, not just the band but each of the singers in it. The show follows how the group came together. How it stayed together. And how it broke apart.

It's not deep. It doesn't hold big surprises. And it doesn't pretend to be more than it is-a sort of "VH1 Behind the Music" episode on stage. But it pulls it off magnificently with high energy, good spirits, a willingness to be warts-and-all about its characters, and a strong string of songs that rarely go past the three-minute mark.

More important, though, this is a show where solid direction (by Des McAnuff, who also helmed "The Who's Tommy" and the Broadway revival of "How to Succeed ... ") and near-perfect casting make all the difference. Even the matinee-only actor I saw in the pivotal Frankie Valli role (John Michael Davis) was spot on.

Like "Wicked," the show clicks once it connects the desires of the characters with the desires of the audience. We knew from the beginning the string of hits-"Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry" et al.-that these boys would create. But we didn't care about them until the dangerous and charming, funny and sad Nick Massi (Michael Ingersoll), the ambitious, awkward and talented Bob Gaudio (Drew Gehling), the difficult-tofathom Tommy DeVito (Jeremy Kushnier) and Frankie Valli welcomed us into their lives.

Just too good to be true? That's a slight stretch. But I couldn't take my eyes off of it.
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