Tuesday, March 15, 2016

'Wicked' Returns To SF, Is Still A Lot Of Fun

This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Wicked, the 10th longest-running musical on Broadway, has returned to San Francisco for the first time since 2013. But Wicked and San Francisco have a long history, as it was here that the show had its pre-Broadway trial run in 2003, and its swung back through SF many times since.
And shockingly, I'd never seen it.

That didn't seem to be the case with much of the audience on opening night. I heard folks around me talking about traveling some distance to "see it again," and I definitely heard a lot of singing along during the show.

While I'd never seen Wicked, I was familiar with its story, having read Gregory Maguire's original book, even if the stage version isn't entirely faithful. It centers on Elphaba, (Emily Koch), born with green skin because of her mother's fondness for a certain green elixir. As a young woman, she and her sister Nessarose, (Megan Masako Haley), who has a handicap of her own, enroll in a school that is not unlike Hogwarts. There she is bullied by most of the students, including Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper), a popular, exceedingly bubbly blond. But, as tends to happen in these kinds of tales, they eventually become friends, and we follow they're progressions from students, to powerful witches.

Taking place in a land as magical as Oz means there are plenty of special effects, and they are, for the most part, effective and not too showy (although there were some issues with the sets on opening night). I loved how the costumes kind of played off ideas seen in The Wizard of Oz, but with some steampunk additions. And the gradual introduction of characters from the movie was a lot of fun, although I do have to say I didn't think those original flying monkeys could ever be creepier; Wicked makes them the stuff of nightmares.

The show got its start on Broadway with Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda the Good, and Adele Dazeem Idina Menzel as Elphaba the Wicked. Those are some pretty big shoes to attempt to fill, but Koch and Cooper both tackle the vocals with aplomb. But it's in their acting and comedic timing that they really shine. Koch's Elphaba is perfectly nerdy, but also tough and deadpan, while Cooper's ditzy and vain Glinda grows up a bit through the course of the play, while still maintaining that bubbly personality that's the center of her comedic performance.

They both have their standout numbers. For Glinda's it's "Popular," in which she expounds on her plans to give Elphaba a makeover. Elphaba's best moment is, of course, the now Glee-enshrined "Defying Gravity," which closes the first act, and demonstrates one of the show's best special effects.

But nothing in the second act lived up to either of those first-act numbers, and that was perhaps the most surprising thing about the production for me. I figured a show that had become so legendary would be filled with numbers I'd be humming all night. Instead, the thing I'll probably remember the most are the lovely moments of friendship between the two witches.

Oh, and those flying monkeys. *Shudder*

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