Since opening on Broadway in 2003, "Wicked" has had smashing success, breaking box-office records and becoming one of the most beloved modern musicals. It has a large, devoted fanbase and inspires the sort of passion in people so that they are eager to see it time and time again.
That at least partially explains why the show is back in Rochester for the third time in the past six years, still playing to a packed — and very enthusiastic — house, as evidenced by Thursday night's performance at the Auditorium Theatre. One of the longest-running shows currently on Broadway, "Wicked" is often mentioned in the same breath as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables," though what that means depends entirely on your personal feelings about those shows. The timing of the show's return to Rochester also happens to capitalize on the revived interest in the magical land of Oz, thanks to the current success of "Oz The Great and Powerful" at the cinematic box office.
If you're bothering to read this review, it's likely you're already aware of the musical's basic plot. The story is loosely based off of Gregory Maguire's novel, which cleverly invented a complex backstory for the "Wizard of Oz"'s Wicked Witch of the West, here known as Elphaba. The novel was born out of a desire to humanize one of the most famous villains of all time, though the story seen in the musical adaptation is significantly simplified and often altered outright in order to keep things light and ensure a happy ending for all of its major characters. The main focus here is on the friendship between Elphaba and Glinda that begins after they're assigned to be roommates at Shiz University. The two women are total opposites. Elphaba is fiercely intelligent but misunderstood and feared due to her green skin, while Glinda is a bubbly social climber, drawn to wealth and popularity.
The musical follows the ups and downs of their relationship over the course of several years, showing how they were each formed by their experiences into the women we recognize from the most famous Oz story, "The Wizard of Oz." There's a lot of plot crammed into the show, which makes it feel condensed and extremely rushed; that's odd considering that so much of it was invented just for the stage. The problem is particularly obvious at the end of the first act, when Elphaba goes from honored guest of the Wizard to undesirable No. 1 awfully quickly.
Any production of "Wicked" is only as good as its Elphaba and Glinda. The two leads in this touring company (Jennifer DiNoia and Hayley Podschun, respectively) are phenomenal. DiNoia has a powerhouse voice, and Podschun nails the infectiously bubbly energy that the role of Glinda requires.
The downside of playing these parts, however, is that the two actors who originated them on Broadway — Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth — were so good in their roles that everyone cast since is tasked with the duty of simply duplicating their performances. As a result, no actress is ever given the chance to make the part her own. So as good as DiNoia and Podschun are, I found myself constantly thinking, "Wow, they sound just like Kristin /Idina." It left me curious about what the parts could have been if the actors had been allowed to put their own stamps on them. But that will never happen with audiences expecting to get precisely what they hear every time they listen to the soundtrack.
The show looks fantastic. The sets, the costumes, the lighting and effects all add up to an impressive theatrical experience. But too often, it feels like spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Even the choreography has the feeling of dutifully rolling out the occasional dance number because this is a musical, and that's what's expected. But the empty glitz is best exemplified by the iron dragon that resides the top of the stage. Despite its light-up eyes, flapping wings, and smoke pouring from its nostrils, it serves no purpose in the show whatsoever.
Stephen Schwartz's score boasts a few legitimately great songs, but far too many that come across as generic and instantly forgettable. There's a reason that most everyone is familiar with "Popular" and "Defying Gravity," whether they've seen the show or not. The only other song that stuck with me at all was "The Wizard and I." Still, I wasn't humming a single one as I left the theater.
Like the novel it is sourced from, the musical version of "Wicked" raises some thoughtful questions about the nature of evil, and whether people are born bad. But the musical constantly casts them aside in favor of more bright lights and shiny objects. Given some thought, it's a little unseemly that a show that is critical of those who are so wrapped up in appearances that they're unable to look beyond the surface of things is itself so consumed with the desire to be beautiful and popular.