Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Stage

Review: It's 'Wicked' good fun at the Straz Center

There's a reason Wicked set a Broadway box office record over the Christmas holidays, becoming one of the highest-earning musicals when it raked in more than $2 million for nine performances: It's an absolutely enchanting musical theater experience. The Broadway darling, at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa through Jan. 27, is fanciful fun that also has something deeper in mind.

Of course, the big draw for Wicked is its familiar and beloved subject, the story of what happened in Oz before Dorothy arrived, told from the perspective of the witches, Glinda and Elphaba.

But if audiences come for that connection, they stay for the sumptuous score by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) and book by Winnie Holzman. Credit them for exploring the unlikely friendship between Glinda and Elphaba, the core success of the musical, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year.

The Straz production benefits from two top-notch performers. Jeanna De Waal brings just the right amount of ditzy charm to Glinda, who becomes the Good Witch, a character that can be insufferable without the right comic touch. Luckily De Waal has it, getting laughs with her first line ("It is good to see me, isn't it?") and carrying that sort of puckish quality throughout the character's journey from self-obsessed princess to courageous do-gooder. She lacked finesse in some of the role's more operatic soprano parts, but ably navigated its demanding vocal challenges. She was especially charming — and hilarious — in Popular, an audience favorite (the hair flip tutorial is a hoot). The chemistry between her and counterpart, Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch, is tremendous, in spoken word and in some lovely harmonizing.

Speaking of Elphaba, Christine Dwyer brings a mix of sarcasm, desperation, compassion and one heck of a voice to the role of the girl born with green skin. She displayed an impressively well-controlled range Thursday night in key numbers like The Wizard and I and I'm Not That Girl, hitting those songs' tricky low notes and revealing a powerful upper register. And she absolutely nailed Elphaba's — and the show's — biggest, most ubiquitous number, Defying Gravity. As an Act 1 closer, it's hands down the most exhilarating set piece of the show. Dwyer's emotionally charged vocal prowess could give Idina Menzel, the show's original Elphaba, a run for her money.

The supporting characters were also finely brought to life by Gina Ferrall as Madame Morrible, Michael Wartella as lovestruck munchkin Boq and Jay Russell as Doctor Dillamond, a teacher who just happens to be a goat. Billy Harrigan Tighe is a perfect fit for the swaggering Fiyero, the love interest for both witches.

Wicked's 90-minute first act (though it doesn't feel nearly that long) is full of playful, witty and quite funny exchanges as Elphaba and Glinda's friendship takes shape. The musical loses bits of its magical oomph the farther it strays from that central relationship — it seems Elphaba's sister Nessarose (Zarah Mahler) is present largely to ensure direct connections to the Wizard of Oz story. Act 2 is darker, more serious and more tied to the story's allusions to its source material, some of which work (Elphaba makes fun of Glinda's penchant for traveling by bubble) and some of which are downright hokey (the revelation of the origins of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are a bit of a stretch). Luckily, a terrific song is never far away, and there are plenty of second-act standouts, including passionate duet As Long As You're Mine, Elphaba's devastating No Good Deed and the show's final song, For Good, a poignant representation of the Elphaba-Glinda relationship.

Wicked is at times a sad and cautionary tale of what can happen to people who are different in a society that is quick to turn them into outcasts. But it's also a beautiful tale of friendship, and that's what resonates most after the dust has cleared. Like Glinda's grand facade, it has deep emotions running beneath its glitzy surface.

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