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VOL. 124 | NO. 130 | Monday, July 6, 2009

‘Wicked’ Turns Oz, The Orpheum Upside Down With Surprises

By JONATHAN DEVIN | The Memphis News

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OZ AT THE ORPHEUM: Donna Vivino as Elphaba, left, and Katie Rose Clarke as Glinda enact the untold story of the witches of Oz as college roommates long before Dorothy arrived. “Wicked” plays through July 12. -- PHOTO COURTESY OF JOAN MARCUS

Dorothy’s famous line from “The Wizard of Oz” might be “There’s no place like home.” But in “Wicked,” the smash Broadway musical that turns perceptions of Oz and its inhabitants upside-down, that phrase is mouthed by the Wicked Witch of the West.

“Wicked” opened at The Orpheum Theater June 24 to the delight of 55,000 ticket holders who have seats for the nearly three-week run in Memphis. Many of those ticket holders probably already know all the songs by heart, but even those who read Gregory Maguire’s novel on which the musical is based were in for a few surprises.

“Wicked” is the story of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, back in their college days, when they both suffered the embarrassment of having to be roommates.

Glinda, a spoiled blond dingbat, spars socially with Elphaba, who is ostracized because of her green skin, until the magic of their true personalities unites them as best friends long before Dorothy’s house lands in Munchkinland.

The two study sorcery at Shiz University and encounter adventure when Elphaba’s magical talents earn her an invitation to meet the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City.

An inspiring display of Broadway magic and music ensues.

Sadly, the musical’s plot leaves Maguire’s novel in the dust, keeping little more than the names of characters intact. Whereas Maguire’s version extends Elphaba’s transformation from a stout-hearted underdog to a dangerously misunderstood sorceress over the course of her life, the musical limits the timeline to a couple years at the Shiz.

The complicated and detailed relationship between Glinda and Elphaba, which in the novel is similar to Scarlet and Melanie in “Gone with the Wind,” is reduced to a warm-hearted comedy routine reminiscent of Jo and Blair in the 1980s TV show “The Facts of Life.”

In the second act, the already confusing plot and its three dozen subplots become even more convoluted in an effort to provide cameo appearances of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.

The show ends with all the sappiness of a Disney animated princess film.

But, by golly, this show has more magic in it than Broadway powerhouses “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” combined. Largely to the credit of Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics and the two hard-working actresses in the lead roles, the show soars in all the right places.

When Glinda, played flawlessly by Heléne Yorke, turns her back on her friends and her popularity to dance with Elphaba at the Ozdust Ballroom, she draws tears from the audience. When Elphaba, played by Marcie Dodd, finally achieves flight during the heart-rending song “Defying Gravity,” it feels as if The Orpheum’s roof might give way for her.

Both Yorke and Dodd are versatile actresses who balance the many facets of their characters with maturity and precision as Glinda bounces between childlike silliness and political judiciousness and as Elphaba grows from a shy outsider to a menacing renegade.

Dodd, in particular, offers the audience much to identify with as Elphaba struggles to win her father’s love, her disabled sister’s friendship and a sly playboy’s affection.

Less impressive is the performance of Tom McGowan as the Wizard, whose singing voice seems uncharacteristically thin for a Broadway musical and who exudes none of the charm and charisma for which the part is written.

Susan Hilferty’s costume design is an unnamed star in the show, particularly the costumes of the citizens of the Emerald City, which, combined with a seemingly tireless ensemble, create a breathtakingly beautiful tableau for the principal actors.

Unfortunately, if one wants an explanation of the many clockwork gears in the set and the giant smoking dragon mounted over the proscenium, a read of Maguire’s book is a requirement, as no explanation is offered in the play.

I had to be reminded that Victor Fleming’s film version of “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland didn’t exactly follow L. Frank Baum’s book either. Whether one is an Oz purist, this show is not to be missed.

“Wicked” runs through July 12.

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