The Wizard of Oz knows a thing or two about theatricality. With all the smoke, flames, and amplification, the guy was practically begging for a Tony Award.
But behind all the flash and bang is a whole lot of ordinary and such is the case with the musical “Wicked,” now playing at the Fox Theatre through Jan. 6.
A lot of people out there absolutely love, love this show, and it is easy to see why. It boasts a great slate of songs that allow the lead actresses to belt their voices out through the back wall of the theater.
The show also features some of the most impressive set designs in the history of the stage. With lots of moving parts and flashing lights, it’s as visually stunning as musical theater can get.
It even has one of the best act breaks you’ll ever see with the chill-inducing, show-stopper “Defying Gravity,” which is worth the price of admission all on its own.
My problem is that I just can’t get past the story which is thin at best and eye-rollingly bad at worst.
To catch up with those of you who’ve been living over the rainbow for the past decade, “Wicked” is a wry retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West, here given the name Elphaba and played by the vocally gifted Christine Dwyer.
According to the story, Elphaba wasn’t always tormenting munchkins or chasing down Kansans (and their little dogs too) but was actually once a misunderstood college coed.
Born with green skin thanks to some unfortunate potion swigging by her mother, Elphaba is shunned by just about everyone and is forced to care for her favored, wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Zarah Mahler).
When they arrive at school, it is discovered that Elphaba has some impressive sorcery powers. She is taken under the tutelage of Madame Morrible (Gina Ferrall) with the promise that if she does well, she will be able to meet with the Wizard (Paul Kreppel), who will surely look past her green skin and see her inner beauty and talent.
Also arriving at school at this time is the privileged and pampered Glinda (played with a forced perky-charm by Jeanna De Waal), who quickly becomes both the most popular girl in school and (accidentally) Elphaba’s roommate. Naturally, Elphaba’s dour exterior clashes with Glinda’s beauty-queen-on-espresso personality, but the two eventually become friends and Glinda even decides to help Elphaba out of her shell in the very funny number “Popular.”
But as we know, things can’t remain hunky-dory in the Land of Oz forever. When roguish prince Fiyero (Billy Harrigan Tighe) arrives on campus, he seems a perfect narcissistic match for Glinda; however, the quiet, misunderstood Elphaba catches his eye as well. Mixed amongst the romance there is also a troubling conspiracy involving discrimination against the talking animals that populate Oz.
By the time Elphaba and Glinda set off to the dazzling Emerald City to meet with the Wizard, we are assured that things will never be the same again because of a series of misunderstandings and unfortunate events that result in Elphaba being hunted and despised throughout the land.
The second act is where things really fall apart because the plot and character motivations get increasingly muddled, especially when the story begins to mirror the occurrences in the original “Wizard of Oz.”
I guess “Wicked” really gets to the heart of what you think a musical should be about. Most would likely argue that if it looks great, sounds great, and is acted great then little else matters. It is a position I can’t argue with.
It’s the same with music; people can go their whole lives loving the melody and tone of a song without ever giving much thought to the lyrics. This is why “Born in the USA” will always be played at the 4th of July parades.
I’m a lyrics guy and I think if a musical is going to be great, it must look great, sound great and tell a great story. “Wicked” isn’t quite there, but it is very close, which is good enough for a whole lot of people.
In spite of my hang-ups, it is a show I am still able to very much enjoy, especially when I adopt the philosophy of another lyrics guy: Two out of three ain’t bad.
“Wicked” is now playing at the Fox Theatre through Jan. 6. For tickets call (314)-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.