Saturday, May 29, 2010
Theater review part deux: Wicked at the Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas
Wicked needs to be seen as it is being done right now at the Music Hall. Anything beyond that pales in comparison.
"I have been changed ... for good." -- Elphaba and Glinda, in Wicked
Suffice to say each decade has that one musical that defies the norm. It tends to be a musical that is a major spectacle with a smorgasbord of riches flooding the stage.
This "unique" musical breaks all sorts of records, from the box office to its cast recording, right down to the souvenir booth. Strangely though when these bigger than life extravaganza musicals open on Broadway, they are met with tepid reviews.
As much as many on the Rialto hate to admit, they need those reams of ink from the New York critics to help them become a big, fat hit. The list is endless of all those plays and musicals that met their untimely death with a closing notice posted on the call board because of the cold, slaughtering reviews their shows received.
Need a current example? Okay, take the recent Bye Bye Birdie. That revival this season became a bloody corpse on Broadway as the critics devoured and shredded that poor show, leaving that revival resembling a lifeless skeleton dying on the Great White Way.
But then there's the exception. That exception is when the musical gods whip up their special magic around these "special" musicals to accomplish that rare feat that many musicals on Broadway cannot achieve. They sprinkle magic dust that turns this musical into a monster hit that did not require those "rave" reviews from the Gotham critics to become a box office smash.
Phantom of the Opera is a prime example. When it opened on Broadway oh so many years ago, the New York critics were snobbish and not that impressed with the opulent Webber opera. But audiences didn't care or even listened to those reviews. Today that musical is the longest-running musical on Broadway, won a slew of awards, and continues to break box office records.
It is a fair assumption to say Wicked (presented by Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas through June 27) is blessed with that same magic. When it opened at the mammoth Gershwin Theater in October 2003, the New York critics gave it at best phlegmatic reviews. But the show did not need those reviews. The word of mouth spread like a massive typhoon all around the nation. Audiences could care less what the Gotham critics thought.
Wicked today has become a juggernaut hit on Broadway, still selling out after seven years at the Gershwin. It has grossed nearly $1.8 billion and has been seen by nearly 23 million people worldwide.
Its merchandise sales (t-shirts, caps, etc.) have exceeded $125 million, making it the fastest-selling show related merchandise in theater history.
The Grimmerie, the book about the making of Wicked has sold nearly 250,000 copies, making it the best-selling book of its kind.
The original Broadway cast recording has been certified platinum and has sold over two million units.
As for the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical, here is where Wicked has hit its only "speed bump" on its yellow brick road to success. All the New York critics and theater related sites were predicting that Wicked would win Best Musical. In The Column, I actually predicted that there would be a major upset and Avenue Q would take home the big prize ... and that's exactly what happened. You could hear the gasps in the audience at Radio City Music Hall when that happened.
Not many felt that this little, intimate musical with puppets, one set, and small cast could win over the glossy, bigger-than-life musical about a witch ... but it did.
Now nearly eight years later here's a strange twist of fate. Right now just a few miles from the Dallas Summer Musicals' Music Hall at Fair Park (where Wicked is playing) at the Winspear Opera House, the national tour of Avenue Q is playing!
So Dallas-Fort Worth audiences has a very unique opportunity set before them. You can go see both shows and discuss. Did the right show win the Tony for Best Musical?
I had the great luck to see the original Broadway production of Wicked on a very cold, blistering windy night in October 2003. In fact, my best friend and I saw it on the very weekend it opened.
To this day I still stand my ground on that no one can or ever will match the phenomenal performances of Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth. It's impossible for anyone to do what these two did both vocally and emotionally with the roles.
And as in my past reviews of Wicked, I still find the second act has some problems. Such as the song "Wonderful" (sung by the Wizard) is dreadful and just needs to be cut. It stops the action dead in its tracks the dramatic flow of the piece. Also the ending has too much of a "Disney" ending. I think it would have been much more emotional if Elphaba did meet her fate as in the book.
Since the original Broadway production, I saw the first and second national tours. Last night would make my fourth visit to Shiz University and the Emerald City.
So how does this third national tour rate in comparison to the Broadway and previous tours? I am so pleased to state that this tour actually outshines the previous past tours, and in some performances they actually were far superior to those who originated the roles on Broadway!
DFW audiences will be pleased to know that for this third tour, nothing has been watered down in regards to design and scope. All the great spectacle, glitz, and magnificence in design have remained intact from the Broadway version.
Last night my guest and I sat in the second row, and I must tell you now: It is so, so, so worth the price of the ticket to sit that close to the stage. After watching this show four times now, I was able to see so much more than what I have seen before, especially in the facial expressions and emotions from the cast and the fine details in its physical design.
Your senses will overload and explode when you see the magnificent scenic design by Eugene Lee, the mouth-watering, lavish lighting design by Kenneth Posner, and the dazzling, jaw-dropping projections by Elaine J. McCarthy.
All of these design elements are exact replicas of the original Broadway version. I have seen so many Broadway shows that go on the road, and they have been stripped, depleted, and reduced in its production values. Not for this tour of Wicked!
It should be noted that the Music Hall recently installed a sparkling, new state-of-the-art sound system, and it is a 100% improvement on the sound now. You can hear with crystal pure clarity each lyric, with a perfect balance of orchestra and voice.
There are a few minor tweaks here and there in the scenic design. Now the Gershwin in New York is a behemothic theater, so scenic designer Lee has more towers on that stage. He also created the set to expand past beyond the proscenium. You can't do that for the tour. But that's minor cosmetic changes in set, for the rest of its grand magnificence is still all there for this tour.
Another reason to sit so close to the stage is to see the opulent, luxurious costume design by Susan Hilferty.
The fabrics, embellishments, patterns, and construction of these elaborate costumes are positively works of art. From the opening scene of the mob, to the Shiz students, to the Emerald City, to the ball in the second act, Hilferty's costumes are marvelous. Then there are the accessories of grand, gorgeous hats, gloves, shoes, and jewelry. And that's just for the ensemble.
The leads also wear sumptuous, grand costumes throughout the evening. From Glinda's blue ball gown dusted in sequins to Elphaba's second act costume that is detailed in rich construction. Even Madame Morrible has divine gowns covered in rhinestones and sequins with elegant sleeves, sweeping pleats, and bustles.
The cast wears over 90 wigs which are all made of human hair and are made individually for each actor, using their own hairline for the front. Also during the first big "quick change," 17 actors have to change from the mob to Shiz students in 1.5 minutes (including costumes, wigs, and shoes).
Speaking of the ensemble, they were all superb. I've seen both on Broadway and in tours some ensembles that are utterly bored doing the show, just going through the motions and looking forward to getting back to their dressing rooms to roam through their Facebook page.
Both as an actor and a critic, I cannot state enough how vital and important an ensemble is to any musical. They can make or break a show. They are the backbone and vitality of any musical. Just because you are not the lead, or have no solo, that does not mean you are not important to the show. It's completely the other way around, because an ensemble IS the show. They help add so much energy and life on stage. They assist greatly in moving the story along. They add the pizazz and dazzle to the company numbers. Their reactions to the action on stage build the emotion for the leads to crest on.
Thursday night this Wicked ensemble performed like it was opening night for them. Their energy radiated like a comet from the opening note to the finale. Again, sitting so close I watched like a hawk at their facial expressions, reactions to each other, and to the story, and they were riveting to observe. This ensemble was one of the finest company of talented performers that I have seen in quite some time, both in New York and on tour. They added so much emotional strength, vocal power, energetic dancing, and showed such commitment to the story, that really elevated the evening much more so than when I saw it in New York and in the past tours.
Within the Wicked supporting cast there is a bevy of Oz-tastic, incandescent performances that provided a terrific balance of hearty laughs and touching dramatic moments.
Those include Brynn O'Malley as Nessarose, Justin Brill as Bog, Tom Flynn as Doctor Dillamond, Richard Kline as The Wizard, and Dominic Giudici as Chistery.
When I opened my Playbill, out flew onto my lap the insert that immediately let me know that there was a substitute performing in the show. So what a rare, great treat it was to see that it was Jayne Houdyshell who would be portraying Madame Morrible. A Tony Award nominee, I have so much enjoyed her work on several TV shows and films. She has played Madame Horrible on Broadway as well. Last night she was positively smashing in this production.
One of the problems I've always had with Wicked has been that Madame Morrible is not given a major solo. We as an audience never fully understand her purpose as to why she joins in the Wizard's plans. What did he do to influence her? What was her background? Her back story? This role needed one big number to truly flesh out her character.
Watching Ms. Houdyshell literally steal every scene she was in Thursday night more than ever solidified this flaw in the score. You could sense the audience begging and wanting more stage time for Houdyshell.
Her facial expressions, comedic timing, and delivery was perfection throughout the evening. Even when she was not the focus of the scene, her demeanor and facial expressions provided excellent subtext to her characterization.
Another exciting surprise while reading my Playbill was to find that Richard H. Blake would be portraying Fiyero. I first say Blake in the Broadway cast of Saturday Night Fever, then a year later he was starring as "Tony Manero" in the national tour. I would again enjoy Blake's outstanding talents in such productions as Aida (Radames) and Rent (Roger).
My final time to see him was when he originated the role of "Warner" in Legally Blonde. Strangely enough, I saw this musical on Broadway the very week it opened. Bizarre how my trips to New York tend to match opening weekends of several past shows I've seen.
Fun fact here: Blake's fellow cast mate from Legally Blonde, Andy Karl (he played the UPS delivery guy), just finished doing a run on Broadway in Wicked as Fiyero.
The role of Fiyero has always felt to me unfinished and poorly constructed. The character arc and subtext is just not fully fleshed out. He goes from a spoiled rich frat boy to falling for two girls, all within one song ("Dancing Through Life"). When I saw the show on Broadway, Norbert Leo Butz sleepwalked through his performance. He lacked chemistry with his co-stars and gave a sense that he knew his role fell into forgettable waters due to his two leading ladies.
In a rare feat, Blake completely overrides his poorly written role and delivers the most romantic, sensual, dynamic performance that I have seen from any other actor in this role. Take for example when he first touches Elphaba's hand. The reaction Blake gives instantly makes you believe he has felt something he has never felt before in his life. His facial expression and eyes show it all, which aids so much in his arc of falling in love with her.
Vocally his superior tenor voice adds some great vocal riffs and pop quality to his songs that really make them stand out. His chemistry with Elphaba (Donna Vivino) is erotic and electrifying.
That passionate, long kiss after their duet of "As Long As You're Mine" is so believable and honest, and overflows with real love between these two.
Blake has never disappointed me each time I've seen him on stage, and in this production he delivers a performance that not only outshines the original, he in fact creates a first-rate performance that equals his two leading ladies. No other "Fiyero" that I have seen has done that.
Chandra Lee Schwartz provides the loudest and best laughs of the night as Glinda. It is a tough task having to compete with those memories of audience members who saw Kristen Chenoweth in the role. But Ms. Schwartz easily wins the audience in creating her own version of Glinda, which is not only hysterically funny, but also contains dramatic intensity that leaves you wiping tears off your face.
Schwartz delivers so many laughs in her solo "Popular" that it's like a cannon that explodes massive amounts of laughter onto the audience. Her inflections with her voice, her dancing, and that razor sharp comic timing, pace, and delivery had the audience rolling in the aisles. Throughout the evening she continued to hit the comic bullseye with stellar success.
But in the second act you see a marvelous dramatic transition within Schwartz's performance that shatters your heart.
Watch how she reacts when she realizes her fiancé does not love her. Or the cruel idea she gives the wizard on how to capture Elphaba. But it's that final scene with Elphaba to the finale that just leaves your Playbill a bit wet from the tears that have dropped from your eyes. Her love and compassion for her best friend (knowing her fate is death) is devastating to watch through Schwartz's eyes. As she sings "For Good" to her final moments on her bubble, tears stream down Schwartz's beautiful face. Her talent and performance is a cornucopia of gut-busting laughs and dramatic intensity that is pure brilliance.
I've seen Idina Menzel, Stephanie Block, and Victoria Matlock tackle the role of Elphaba, the green girl who is laughed at, so misunderstood, and finally becomes the famous wicked witch of the west. I have yet to see anyone surpass Menzel's Tony Award-winning performance in the role. But Donna Vivino is the first actress to come close to that!
Ms. Vivino (who originated on Broadway the role of Young Cosette in Les Miserables), is magnificent as Elphaba. In past tours, the previous actresses just lacked the powerhouse vocals and belt that Menzel has. Look, after hearing those big, soaring ballads that are written for that role, you need to hear that kind of voice singing them. Period. Anything less is a let down. Vivino thankfully is blessed with a booming soprano voice that segues with crystal finesse from pop to Broadway within her songs.
Her vibrato is unyielding, strong, and in control. She is also the first "Elphaba" since Menzel that I have seen actually hold the notes in those big power ballads to the very end.
Her phenomenal vocal renditions of "The Wizard and I," "No Good Deed," and the grandiose "Defying Gravity" were met with such thunderous applause, cheers, and screams that it was almost deafening! That's how jaw-dropping amazing this girl is!
Her acting choices and craft are to be complimented as well. Again, sitting so close I got to see that for the second act, her make-up has changed dramatically. Her make-up has transformed from plain school girl to glamorous, intense, and, yes, even sexy woman. There is shading on her cheekbones and eyes that is both dramatic and striking. This aids in really making her facial expressions pop out.
Vivino reveals the harsh pain, guilt, and loneliness that Elphaba feels in the first act. But you also see the dramatic subtext within her characterization for the second act transform into graphic, honest reality. From the loss of her sister, her father, her lover, and letting her best friend go, Vivino digs deep into that green skin to deliver a powerful performance that wins the audience over.
Her chemistry with Richard Blake and Chandra Lee Schwartz is perfection from their first scene to the final measures of the last song. This is the first time where I really felt from my seat the love that Fiyero and Elphaba have for each other, thanks to Vivino and Blake.
But then you see the arc between Vivino and Schwartz grow from bitter enemies forced to room together at Shiz University, to battling for the affections of the same man, to finally best friends. One of the best examples of this is the duet "For Good." This song has always made my eyes well up in tears. The lyrics speak volumes regarding people who come and go in your life. Both Vivino and Schwartz sing with captivating voices and acting that elevate the duet into a major showstopper.
Wicked will be one of those musicals that I will never grow tired of. There will come a day when this musical will be available for regional and community theaters to mount and produce.
But mark my words, they will not be able to duplicate the splendor and extravagance this musical requires and demands. From its design, to the special effects, to the talent.
That is why you need to do whatever you can to see this national tour now at Dallas Summer Musicals. It is worth every cent of that ticket. Wicked is a musical that just gets better each time I see it. Wicked needs to be seen as it is being done right now at the Music Hall. Anything beyond that pales in comparison.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
See more stories in:
- Looking for dinner and a game of bocce? Try Samar by Stephan Pyles
- Dallas Beer Kitchen promises "rare, hard to find" brews on Lowest Greenville
- Transit Bicycle Co. relocates to Lower Greenville
- Creepy rendering of Big Tex shows he's almost ready for the State Fair
- Photos: Dallas Heritage Village Charleston'd its way through history on Saturday