June 3, 2005

Broadway comes to Chicago for a Wicked good time

Everyone has seen the advertisements on the CTA buses proclaiming that, this summer, one of the best new musicals is here to stay at the Oriental Theater. Wicked is based on Gregory Maguire's book, which tells the story of Elphaba— otherwise known as the Wicked Witch of the West—and the events of her life before Dorothy drops in.

The story starts off in Oz, with the Munchkins and Glinda the Good Witch celebrating the death of the "most wickedest witch there ever was." We learn that Glinda actually went to school with Elphaba, where Elphaba was shunned because of her "unnaturally green" skin. Glinda and Elphaba end up rooming together, and the adventure begins when we learn that "something bad is happening in Oz."

Wicked retells The Wizard of Oz from a different perspective (hence the tag line: "So much happened before Dorothy dropped in"). The story intersects with the movie perfectly, this time with an entirely new understanding of each character. And that is half the joy of watching it. Audience members who have not read the book (such as myself, though I intend to now), are condemned to constantly trying to guess how plot devices hearken back to the original movie.

Classically overdone Broadway showstoppers almost fully comprise the music, which is chock full of clever lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. The score is not only fantastically composed, but it's funny—something that is too rare in current Broadway musicals. It also helps when the music is perfectly sung.

The Chicago cast easily rivals the current Broadway cast. Stephanie J. Block, who originated the role of Elphaba when Wicked was in its San Francisco previews, is going to reprise her role in the Windy City. Her voice is pitch-perfect and she is able to express emotion without talking through the song (another horrible trend taking over Broadway). With an amazing range, she does not disappoint people who own the original cast CD. Kendra Kassebaum plays Galinda, and while she isn't as vocally accomplished as Block, she nails the character and makes the audience love her despite every mistake her character makes in pursuit of popularity.

The Oriental Theater is gorgeous, rivaling any theater on Broadway. It boasts a gilded ceiling, replete with ornate details, and one can only hope that the production's polish will rival that of the lavish theater. Wicked doesn't disappoint. From its most famous prop—a large bust of a dragon that hangs over the stage, belching smoke as it sways back and forth—and beyond, everything about Wicked makes it a blockbuster musical. Both Galinda and Elphaba "defy gravity" in creative and different ways, amid large sets that have been created in deference to Edwin B. Willis's original set design for the 1939 film. The producers have spared no expense to bring Wicked to the Midwest for the summer. Since the musical is staying for so long, the set is exactly the same as the Broadway set, not one of the smaller, traveling sets theatergoers usually receive as a consequence for not being in New York City.

Even if you aren't a fan of musicals, Wicked is fun to see. This show isn't a schmaltzy romance (although, don't fret, there is a romantic subplot), and it tackles a range of issues, including racism, popularity, and the perils of conformity. It also perfectly accompanies one of the most beloved movies of all time.

You can sometimes find cheap tickets on the day of the show, but, in general, tickets range from $30 to $80. If you are going to be here over the summer, it's definitely in your best interest to make it to the Oriental Theater. If you can't see it, or want to see it multiple times, we can only hope that the producers will eventually allow the story to be made into a feature-length film so it can be watched over and over again without breaking the bank.