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Theatre Review: Crowd-Pleasing Wicked Returns to Columbus

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Crowd-Pleasing Wicked Returns to Columbus'Wicked' at the Ohio Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holtzmann’s (book) adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked is one of the longest-running shows on Broadway, and still going. This funhouse-mirror-that-shows-only-the-truth look at the Wizard of Oz returns to the Ohio Theatre this week in a touring production that retains every bit of the charm and razzle-dazzle that keeps audiences lining up.

We follow Elphaba (Emily Koch) from birth through her arriving at Shiz, with the world on her shoulders. Elphaba’s father’s (Wayne Schroder) barely-disguised disdain for her and her responsibility to look after her sister Nessarose (Megan Masako Haley) plus, well, being green, have ground her down but not snuffed her out. Here she meets Galinda, soon known as Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper), given everything she wants, at the time with her eye on Fiyero (Jeremy Woodard). With a slew of sly, fascist references, including lusty winks to Orwell’s Animal Farm references, like the best musicals it dances through heavier themes. No one is immune to the seductive nature of power; being liked can be the greatest and cruelest weapon; how much it hurts to find out what you always wanted isn’t really what you thought; the way friendships get made and broken when you’re young. It does all of this with a remarkably light touch against the fascinating, steampunk-flavored backdrop Oz, under the rule of the wizard (Stuart Zagnit) and his “press secretary” Madame Morrible (Wendy Worthington).

Stephen Schwartz’s previous shows included Godspell and Pippin; he’s no stranger to writing songs strong enough to stand up to any amount of fireworks. Director Joe Mantello’s done everything from tense, naturalistic drama, to explosive musicals and knows let everything in this big-canvas production breathe. There’s space given for the glittering spectacle, but it never forgets that, at its heart, it’s about two girls becoming women together and learning everything has to change. Both things have to work in a balancing act, and they do: as many times as I’ve seen someone fly on a stage, I was still grinning when Elphaba finally took off from the ground.

Wicked needs perfect casting of its two leads to work, these iconic characters we grew up with have to be women who make them their own without diminishing any of our fond memories. The current touring cast outdoes itself on that score. Emily Koch’s Elphaba is a stunning mix of dry wit, low-key physical comedy, and sexy charm with a voice that will take your heart out of your chest. Amanda Jane Cooper’s Glinda has a more circuitous route to discovery, an ambiguous anti-hero who has to do horrible things with a winsome smile and try to redeem herself. She takes flight in those quieter moments, even as she brings the house down on songs like “Popular.” It’s not for nothing this is one of the few musicals of the last 15 years that can boast a bona fide standard and “Defying Gravity” has lost none of its luster with Koch stripping layers of her former self away as we’re privileged to watch and Cooper getting drawn into that wild freedom she knows she can’t commit to but harmonizing gorgeously. When they sing “For Good” together it feels like they were born to have their voices entwine.

The supporting cast is also stellar. Zagnit hits the right tones with the Wizard, pathetic but not self-aware enough to know how terrible he is until it’s too late. He performs a terrific balancing act on “A Sentimental Man.” Woodard’s Fiyero is an interesting merge of the two women’s arcs as he goes back and forth; it’s great to see a boy take on the characteristics of the girls he’s drawn to instead of the other way around. Worthington’s Morrible is peel-the-paint-off-the-walls hilarious. A burst of chaos with an immediately identifiable voice who casts a shadow over the proceedings even when she’s not on stage.

There are issues with the structure of the show. The two best songs are both in the first act, leaving the second to lean heavily on reprises. The fact that the first act has the fun of telling the audience what we don’t already know leaving the second act to contort itself to fit around what we do. But these have always been there, and it’s churlish to suggest them as a reason for someone not to go. The Wicked we have is a burst of fun that won’t disappoint anyone who goes in knowing what to expect. And it’s the kind of gateway drug show that might make a child grow up loving theatre, the way I loved Phantom of the Opera when I was nine.

Wicked runs through September 4 with performances at 7:30 pm Tuesday through Thursday, 8:00 pm Friday, 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm Saturday, and 1:00 pm and 6:30 pm Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit columbus.broadway.com.

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