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Seeing "Wicked" for the third time (in the strong tour at the Murat through Jan. 1), I'm 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. Or if the initial production had been less successful and this team–or another–had a chance to see what worked and then bring everything else up to that level.
I'm happy for their success, but since the best 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. Don't be surprised if you see some green faces in the crowd.
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. In addition, it's saddled with the dragon head and clockworks design that seems left over from another show, a second act where motivations turn on a dime, some second-tier songs, and plotting that seems 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-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.)
In the latest local visit, I'm happy to report something I didn't expect in a show that's been on the road this long: The cast has found nuances, some subtle, some significant, that make "Wicked" seem more of a whole this time around. Particular improvements come with Fiyero and Bok, the two supporting guys who come to life better in this production than in the previous two I've seen.
Despite its shortcomings, "Wicked" once again delivers. When I first heard it, I suspected that it would have a long, long life.
I'm glad to see that the thrill hasn't melted.