2024-06-25 2:46 PM

‘Wicked’ at Kennedy Center Proves Kind Entertainment for the Holidays

In “Glinda of Oz,” a classic book in Frank L. Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” series, one reads these opening lines: “Glinda, the good Sorceress of Oz, sat in the grand court of her palace, surrounded by her maids of honor—a hundred of the most beautiful girls of the Fairyland of Oz. […] Glinda smiled, glad to see her maids mixing play with work.” In contrast to this idyllic scene in Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the Tin Woodman warns us of “the Wicked Witch of the West [who] will enchant us and make us her slaves.” This smooth morality of the good witch Glinda versus the evil Witch of the West is called into question in the musical “Wicked,” in which one experiences life from their sides and learns that “good” vs. “evil” is too simple a dichotomy.

External circumstances test fast friendships as a house has wafted from Kansas lands in Oz. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Like few other 1930’s movies, the MGM classic “The Wizard of Oz” is widely watched by a huge swath of the US population, due to the film’s wonderful melodies, engaging characters, and a fairy tale come alive out of a wistful American setting. The twenty-first century musical “Wicked” complicates this very world, providing the backstory of Glinda the Good Witch (played excellently that evening by understudy Jackie Raye) and Elphaba, the “Wicked Witch of the West” (Lissa DeGuzman in a wickedly good performance). The audience learns they were boarding school roommates in a Harry Potter-style Hogwarts boarding school, with Elphaba a diligent student and capable of great kindness. Glinda is annoyingly superficial and at times vindictive. Yet Glinda and Elphaba become friends and grow. They develop their supernatural powers, although their school is not Hogwartian school of magic. Gradually, various external circumstances as well as seminal experiences force them to take on the roles of “good Glinda” and “evil” Elphaba to the outside world, while maintaining their basic goodness and holding on to their friendship in the face of uneasy conditions. Then a girl named Dorothy with her house from Kansas (wafted to Oz by a cyclone) lands and kills Elphaba’s sister (a part enacted well by Kimberly Immanuel).

The current show illustrates why “Wicked” has become such a popular Broadway musical. There are memorable tunes, such as “No One Mourns the Wicked,” itself a memorable performance by a talented Jackie Raye. Her incandescent performance and singing are all the more astonishing as she was the understudy taking on a main role the night we saw the performance. She made the part her own!
Elissa DeGuzman’s moment as Elphaba is spectacular as the witch rising from the stage into the air for a wonderful “Defying Gravity.” John Bolton has his moment as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz in a much more traditional Broadway song, “Wonderful,” sung wonderfully. Natalie Venetia Belcon truly shines as Madame Morrible in a duet with Mr. Bolton in “The Wizard and I.”

This current cast with their wonderful voices and performances preserves the intent of the production and even fosters the dynamic friendship between the two leads. The show keeps its promise to convey the backstory of the original Oz books and film and engage us in the lives of Elphaba, Glinda, and their true natures as both try to discover their true purposes in life.

Audiences will relate to this performance, as most audience members know the original film, to which there is an occasional homage. A scene in the wizard’s palace of the imposing machine “Wizard of Oz” channels the original movie but in an original way, and the arrival of Glinda in the Emerald City presents a stage set as glitzy, glassy, and emerald green as anything in the MGM movie musical. Nonetheless, there are many plot intricacies that we must recommend familiarizing oneself with a summary of “Wicked” before attending the show.

All in all, this is a splendid production of “Wicked,” thanks to a wonderful cast, superb direction by Joe Mantello, the settings of Eugene Lee (especially memorable is a bat-like dragon with glowing eyes which watches over all), and the lighting of Kevin Posner. Likewise, the costumes of Susan Hilferty especially connect us to the classic Oz narrative of our childhoods while suggesting new directions in order to break the surface and go “beyond good and evil.”

The production at the Kennedy Center runs through January 22, 2023.


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