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Review: 'Wicked' returns to the Murat

November 15, 2013

Seeing "Wicked" for the fourth time (in the tour at the Murat through Dec. 1), I feel compelled to mention the names of lead performers Hayley Podchun, Jennifer DiNoia, and David Nathan Perlow, right up front.

All are fine, particularly DiNoia, as Elphaba, who delivers her songs with emotional truth and clarity without doing imitation Idina Menzel. 

Through no fault of theirs, though, I don't think I'll remember DiNoia or her Emerald City companies distinctly in a month. Truth is, I have no memory of the individual performances of the leads in the last three productions of "Wicked" I saw. Or, for that matter, most of the casts I've seen of other touring blockbusters like "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables." By design, these shows tend to absorb rather than elevate their talented players. 
And that's a shame, since good work is being done. And the production itself remains in strong shape, with no signs of cutbacks or road fatigue. 
As for the show itself, my thoughts remain the same as they were as written in previous reviews (so forgive me if I borrow some of my own verbiage). I'm still nagged by notion that it could have been a truly great show if composer Stephen Schwartz and the rest of the creative people behind it had another few weeks to work out more of the ambitious show's kinks.

Since so much of "Wicked" is so wonderful, I can't help but wish the rest were as solid.

For those unfamiliar (forgive some paraphrasing from my review of the Chicago production), "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.

The first 10 minutes or so still clunks along like ersatz "Evita." The choreography still feels minimally invasive rather than integral and exciting. Dialogue scenes still come off like third drafts rather than final products.It's saddled with a second act where lesser songs, including "Wonderful" and "No Good Dead Goes Unpunished," dominate. And key plot elements are lifted from Elton John's "Aida" (strong but "different" woman forms friendship with fashion-centric ditz, gets the guy, and inspires blonde to be a better ruler).

I could go on, but that would only cloud the fact that when Elphaba 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 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. Despite its shortcomings, "Wicked" once again delivers that. Plus spectacle. 

I'm glad to see that the thrill hasn't melted.

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