Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Winnie Holzman. Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire. Directed by Joe Mantello. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, May 29. Continues until June 29
Wicked works best, in my experience, if you pay attention to the words and don’t get your hopes up for the music.
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked tells the inside story of Elphaba, the so-called Wicked Witch of the West. At its serious heart, this frisky entertainment is about exclusion, scapegoating, and reclaiming power. Elphaba, like Kermit, finds that it isn’t easy being green. And she becomes a champion for the talking animals of Munchkinland, who are being forced out of academic positions, rounded up, and bullied into silence until they lose the power of speech. The parallel with the Nazis’ treatment of Jews is clear. But the metaphor also conjures images of other forms of prejudice—including the current opposition to policies that would protect Vancouver’s trans students.
But Wicked’s politics never interferes with its fun. In college, Elphaba’s roommate is Galinda, who will go on to become Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. At school, she’s a bimbo. “I don’t know why you can’t just teach us history,” she says to her goat professor, “and stop harping on the past.”
Kara Lindsay, who’s playing Glinda in this touring production, is a knockout. Part of her charm comes from the unabashed ways that she combines Glinda’s prissy femininity with butch vulgarity. When her wand doesn’t work, for instance, she huffs on it and wipes it under her armpit like a mechanic cleaning a dipstick on a rag.
Laurel Harris knows how to make the most of Elphaba’s deadpan humour. “What?” the green-skinned frosh says when her classmates react to her with horror. “Have I got something in my teeth?” And as a singer, Harris handles the insane vocal range and extreme dynamics of the role with aplomb.
Glinda’s showstopper, “Popular”, in which she gives Elphaba a makeover, is the best song in the show. “Don’t be offended by my frank analysis,” she sings. “Think of it as personality dialysis.” But the songs, which were written by Stephen Schwartz, all have witty lyrics; what distinguishes “Popular” is that it also has a tune. Elphaba’s barnstorming “Defying Gravity” has a memorable refrain. Other than that, though, it sounds like recitative—like most of the songs in Wicked. Yes, there are endless high notes and crescendos, but those are crude, though crowd-pleasing, substitutes for melody.
The physical production, which includes Susan Hilferty’s insanely layered and inventive costumes, is spectacular. But the musical itself is bloated. At 90 minutes, Act 1 is far too long, and Act 2 wastes time in songs such as “Wonderful” that do little to advance the story.
So this big night out is a bit too big sometimes. But its heart is in the right place. It’s witty. And thanks to this strong company, the stage is awash with talent.