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Review: Glitter and predictability aside, this musical at the Straz is 'Wicked' slick

Amanda Jane Cooper plays Glinda and Jessica Vosk plays Elphaba in Wicked, the untold backstory of the witches of Oz.
Published Feb. 5, 2017

TAMPA

This year's touring stage extravaganza fumes with thigh-high fog, glitters like 10 tons of costume jewelry and screeches with prehistoric monkeys.

Welcome to Oz, as envisioned by Wicked, a Broadway musical that sometimes looks like halftime at the Super Bowl. It's the season's heavy hitter at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, where the show runs through most of February. And like the Florida State Fair, which will run concurrently, this one came to town in semitrailers loaded with gaudy contraptions that can only move with the help of gears and pulleys.

Like its forbearer, The Wizard of Oz, this story has much to say about the folly of conventional wisdom. Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel gave the Wicked Witch of the West a revisionist past that explains how she got to be that way. A thesis that the witch, Elphaba, was merely gifted and misunderstood (also ostracized for her green skin) grew into a book by Winnie Holzman and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Holzman and Schwartz both got Tony nominations for their work on the 2003 musical. Neither won, but Wicked has grossed a combined total of more than $3 billion for its North American tours alone; on Broadway, only The Lion King and The Phantom of the Opera have grossed more.

It's easy enough to see why in this production, even if Wicked is equal parts spectacle and schmaltz. There's just enough ugly-duckling, Matilda-esque energy to make it work, thanks to two indispensable performances and deep support. Adults in this world are not to be trusted. They neglect their families, have affairs, exploit children and then brazenly lie about it. Jessica Vosk anchors the resistance as Elphaba, and pays a price for her compassion. Vosk provides the forcefulness Elphaba must have, both in presence and voice, carrying the show's climactic moments in a pair of power anthems, Defying Gravity and a masterful No Good Deed.

Amanda Jane Cooper plays the bumptious Glinda, who bathes in the appearance of goodness while either perpetrating cruelty or standing by while others commit evil deeds on her behalf. These two exchange a lot of kid-friendly sitcom humor, in which Holzman's script seems to poke fun at itself, telling us to enjoy the pageantry and not take any of this too seriously.

But people have all the same, particularly little girls around the world and women who have walked in their shoes. Wicked is a raised fist in solidarity with the bullied. That's about as nuanced a cause as standing up for homeless puppies; yet with the right villains and supporting characters, even the most formulaic of plots can work. And it is in the overall effort that Wicked succeeds. Isabel Keating plays Madame Morrible with other-worldly imperiousness. Her partner in crime, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz as channeled by Fred Applegate, is an X-ray of moral decay.

Jeremy Woodard paints a sympathetic portrait of the prince Fiyero, a conflicted romantic lead and precursor to the scarecrow. Other Wizard of Oz characters also make their way to the stage, at least obliquely. We even hear from Dorothy but don't see her, because this show definitely isn't about goody-goods who do as they are told.

A devastatingly endearing performance by Harry Bouvy as Doctor Dillamond, a professorial goat who recognizes Elphaba's gifts, also benefits this production, as do the Tony-winning costume designs and a fleet of dancers who earn their money. In a celebratory scene in the first act, the Emerald City skyline depicted onion domes reminiscent of the University of Tampa, just over the Hillsborough River.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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