Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Theater review: The cast of Dallas Summer Musicals Wicked blows the roof off the theater
Stunning, incredible, amazing and superlative are just a few ways to describe it.
FAIR PARK Within the cavernous vault that holds the vast history of musicals, there are productions that have their faithful, devoted fans. This library, with its wealth of musical theater, contains musicals for audiences and performers who have a deep connection and appreciation to the material. But in the same vein, there are also other musicals in this vault that just the mere mention of its title has you screaming like a banshee, plucking your eyes out and cutting your ears off rather than having to see or hear it ever again.
I would rather suffer through Kim Kardashian and Octomom in a production of Side Show than sit through one more production of, oh let's say, The Music Man. And before you create a voodoo doll of me to poke pins into, let the facts show that I've done Music Man three times. The first time was in summer stock in the ensemble and then portrayed the role of Marcellus Washburn in two other productions.
That's not counting the ions of times that I've had to sit through it as an audience member.
But then there are those musicals that the second I hear the overture I melt like buttah into musical theater heaven as I allow the score, book, design, direction, singing, dancing, and acting cover me in a cloak of sheer pleasure and enjoyment. Stephen Schwartz's Wicked is a prime example.
My very first journey to the Emerald City that is Wicked was the very week after it opened on Broadway in October 2003 at the Gershwin Theatre, starring Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. I had no real prior knowledge of the show itself other than it was based on Gregory Maguire's novel (which I've never read). I was instead keenly aware of its two leading ladies. But also, I had devoured and read in all the New York papers the drama and backstage stories of Wicked's difficult out of town tryout in San Francisco. For musical theater addicts such as myself, the trades printed endless stories of the major problems this very expensive, mega-million dollar musical was having.
The San Francisco tryout revealed the serious problems that plagued Wicked in terms of book, story, and score. The critics raked them over the coals on those elements. The original show had all its focus on Glinda, and not on Elphaba.
Broadway tends to look at the almighty dollar before focusing on the art form in the creation of a musical. But in what turned out to be a very wise decision, composer Schwartz demanded that they take a major breather after leaving San Francisco. The composer and artistic staff took three months off and did a major reconstruction of the book and score. They cut and edited songs, added new ones, and changed the focus of the story from Glittery Glinda and instead zeroed in on the girl with the Granny Smith apple green skin tone. They also did some re-casting in several roles, including that of The Wizard of Oz. They replaced Tony Award winner Robert Morse for another Tony Award winner, Joel Grey.
When Wicked opened on Broadway, it was met with yet again mixed reviews; however Menzel and Chenoweth received rapturous waves of critical praise. I, 100 percent, agree with those glowing accolades about both leading ladies, especially Menzel. Then a strange thing happened. Audiences ignored the reviews as word of mouth became a green tidal wave of people screaming and telling everyone, "You have got to see this show!"
At the Tony Awards, Wicked received 11 nominations. It was the show to beat. Menzel won a much deserved "Best Actress in a Musical" Tony (beating out her co-star Chenoweth). In what had to be one of the most controversial years at the Tony Awards, Wicked would lose "Best Book" and "Best Score" to a much smaller musical, Avenue Q. This set up for the biggest shocker of the night.
Nathan Lane presented the Tony for "Best Musical." You can see on the telecast his face do a quiet double take at the envelope with the winner's name on it, and he even paused before he said in a surprised voice, "Avenue Q!" If you carefully listen to the telecast, you can actually hear a brief second of utter shocked silence, then gasps from the audience. The TV camera caught the Wicked producers sitting there in disbelief, where a couple of rows behind them the producers, creators, and cast of Avenue Q jumping up and down, sobbing and hugging as they race towards the Radio City Music Hall stage. This has gone down in Tony Award history as one of the greatest upsets.
But Wicked had the last laugh because they needed no Tony Award. The musical has become a major sold out smash hit since 2003. It has shattered endless box office records. The national tours continue to also sell out over and over again. Wicked today is still one of biggest mega musicals to ever hit the Great White Way.
Two years later, I saw Wicked again on Broadway and have seen every single national tour of Wicked that has come to Dallas. And each time I still do see the same problems in the book and score. For example, poor Fiyero just doesn't have a solid solo that provides him with grounded subtext. Sure, he has "Dancing Through Life," but it just lacks the emotional core for us to understand him. He does fare better in Act Two with the duet "As Long As You're Mine." Other characters, that while on stage have such dramatic weight within the story, are left by the side of the yellow brick road with no songs of their own. Such as Bog, Madame Morrible and Nessarose. These three characters contain so much emotional weight to the story, but they have no major solo to speak of. Sure, they have solo lyrics here and there sprinkled out within the score. But how fun would it be to give Madame Morrible a hilarious comedic number, or compose a heartfelt, emotionally painful ballad for Bog and Nessarose, reflecting their lack of a true relationship.
Then there is the Wizard himself. Act Two goes into the darker waters of dramatic emotion within the characters and the music. But right in the middle of the act the Wizard sings a bland, lifeless solo titled "Wonderful." When I first saw Joel Grey sing this, he danced and performed it like his past successful roles on Broadway. You could clearly see in his body and vocal inflections that he was still channeling his past glories on the Great White Way. You could see auras of the Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret and Amos Hart from Chicago during Grey's solo. Listen to the composition of the song itself, it even sounds a bit like Kander and Ebb. This number becomes a steel wall that crashes hard on the stage, resulting in the powerful, dramatic emotion that the score and book was achieving to slam against this wall and stop dead in their tracks. It's a song that can easily be cut. If it was, the dramatic intensity would soar to such higher emotional success.
I must confess that after seeing and hearing Idina Menzel as Elphaba, each actress after her that I have seen – while they have all delivered amazing performances – never reached the vocal stratosphere that Menzel achieved with the score. I would say Eden Espinosa got the closest to Menzel's vocal range when I saw her take over the role. But I've also greatly enjoyed the work of Stephanie J. Block in the role.
For Glinda, each actress that I have seen has found new comedic elements within the role. Chenoweth was a powerhouse, but after seeing Megan Hilty's performance, well she would have given her a run for her money In that role. Hilty currently is starring in NBC's Smash.
But these are minor quibbles that I've always had with Wicked since I first saw it in 2003. The majority of the score is some of the finest work that Schwartz has ever composed. Many of the songs are shimmering emerald gems of artistic beauty. The two leading ladies have the best songs. I still shed tears when I hear their duet, "For Good." My heart leaps into my throat on Elphaba's power lung-filled ballad, "Defying Gravity." The emotion and subtext between these two best friends and their relationship just touches my heart so deeply. So a recent Thursday night would be my eighth time to join Glinda on her bubble machine, ride on Elphaba's broom, and join them on their trip to Emerald City to see Wicked. This time returning once again to the Dallas Summer Musicals.
My past reviews of Wicked have lavished heaps of praise on the design elements, and none of that has changed here. Eugene Lee's spectacular scenic design still is a marvel to view as the sets shift and change all evening long. Susan Hilferty's opulent, resplendent costume design should be required study for any costumer designer. The detail of the patterns, fabrics, and beading is so magical, or as RuPaul might say, "It's an extravanaga eleganza!" Kudos must also go to Tom Watson's hair and wig design that complements Hilferty's costumes. Bathing these jaw-dropping sets and costumes is Kenneth Posner's dazzling, superior lighting design.
When it comes to national tours, I've noticed a trend in several as the major big hits return again and again. The first tour brings all the bells and whistles in design, but then you slowly see those bells and whistles begin to disappear after each return engagement. For example Beauty & The Beast. When I saw it in New York at the Palace Theater, it was a feast for the eyes in scope and design with its sets, costumes, lighting, and special effects. The first national tour had a majority of the same elements as its New York counterpart. But then each tour after that, the sets went from mammoth set pieces, like the castle, to painted backdrops. The cast shrunk in size. The lighting seemed to have lost its sparkle. I do understand the expense of taking a show on the road, but when people are shoveling major bucks for tickets, I think they deserve how it should look as close as possible to the original New York production.
Wicked has never returned looking like it left out the bells and whistles. At least to my eyes, everything that the first national tour had in regards to design are all there! That is so rare when it comes to national tours. I can only think of two other major box hits that return again and again that do not scale back, those would be Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. So what you see on the Music Hall stage is exactly what was produced the first time.
With one minor change — It could be just me, but it does look like the ensemble has been shrunk in size. The original Broadway cast had 24 ensemble members. The past tours I remember a big ensemble. This current Wicked company looks to have a smaller cast in regards to ensemble. But again, it could be just me.
So how did this current cast measure up from past Wicked companies? Let's us grab a handful of lollipops in Munchkin land and discuss that!
While they may look small in numbers, the ensemble is fantastic. Their energy and commitment to the piece is so fresh and exciting, it almost felt like it was their first night performing the show. I've seen some tour ensembles "phone it in" and just go through the motions, looking like zombies from The Walking Dead. Not this cast. They sing with full out vocals, supply some jovial new comedic moments, dance with sizzling energy, and provide a sturdy, solid, emotional framing for the story and the principals.
After you have seen the original Broadway cast, you will always compare the next performer who takes on that role left vacant by the original. Some succeed, others don't. When it comes to iconic shows like Wicked, it is a very difficult challenge for the actors to make the audience forget what they saw and heard in New York. Not everyone saw it on Broadway. But you can bet the majority of the audience has the Wicked original cast recording!
Each Wicked principal I've seen since Broadway has taken the roles and made them their own, all achieving great success (with the exception of one Fiyero in a past tour that was horribly miscast). The current Wicked group of principals and supporting cast for this tour achieve resounding success with what they have developed and created for their roles in truly making them their own visions of their characters.
“One Short Day” Montage from Wicked coming to DSM!
Timothy Britten Parker was in the original Broadway production of Wicked. Later on he would take on the role of Doctor Dillamond. His name should ring a bell to Rent-heads immediately, as he was part of the original legendary Broadway cast of Jonathan Larsen's masterpiece. I have actually seen Parker portray Doctor Dillamond on tour before. It completely amazed me that after doing Wicked on Broadway, then on the road, he would be burned out. Not a chance! He brings mirthful new comic bits within the character, but also a deeper level of compassion over the plight of animals disappearing in Oz. It is a festive treat to see Parker again in the show.
Demaree Hill as Nessarose and Jesse JP Johnson as Bog both deliver smashing performances. Both talented actors brought forth a rich layer of subtext to their characterizations. Their chemistry gels so beautifully in creating a heartbreaking aura of unrequited love. Mr. Johnson in fact is so much more entertaining than the original Broadway actor who created Bog. He makes him more honest and raw with a hint of shyness. The actor who originated the role of Bog was way too hyper and over the top, and had this awkward "stalking" devotion to Glinda. Not Johnson. Thus the painful dramatic results of Act Two for these two characters are much more moving, thanks to the work of Ms. Hill and Mr. Johnson. It's their performances that again I say, I so wish they had a duet ballad to show the pain of their relationship.
With Madame Morrible, I have seen from the great Carol Shelley (who originated the role) to the hilarious Oscar nominee Carol Kane, take on the role of the evil head mistress of Shiz University, who later becomes the press secretary for the great Oz. This time its four-time Emmy Award winner Kim Zimmer who slithers into the nefarious skins of this woman. Zimmer, like the other principals, discovers new and side-splitting comedic bon-bons peppered throughout her performance. Her facial expressions are priceless, both in comedic and dramatic moments within her characterization.
It is really fascinating to observe Zimmer's subtext and facial expressions during Act Two's "Thank Goodness." This is the first time I saw how much Morrible worked her evil plans to have Glinda turn on her best friend. Zimmer displays chilling, dark subtext in that number that really adds a whole new layer to who Morrible is. She is outstanding in this role.
Tom McGowan as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz may look familiar to fans of the film The Birdcage. He portrayed the tabloid reporter who follows Gene Hackman's senator to Miami and to the gay nightclub hoping to land a new scandal. McGowan is quite enjoyable in the role of Oz, including creating some new comedy for his first scene. But bless his heart, he struggles through the bland, un-needed solo in Act Two, "Wonderful." Not even the great Joel Grey could make that number work. McGowan does all he can with the song, but as it has been done since the original, the song kills the dramatic arc that the audience is being taken on by Elphaba and Glinda. It's not McGowan's fault that the role is stuck with such a thankless song. But nonetheless he gives it his all.
Curt Hansen portrays Fiyero, the leading man who arrives at Shiz University having both leading ladies fall in love with him. I can without a doubt state that Hansen is a million times better than Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz who originated the role. Hansen, with his pretty boy band looks, nails down perfectly the rich, spoiled ladies' man of royal blood who transforms into a man who falls for a woman he never would have given a second glance at before. The role itself is not fully fleshed out in regards to the book and score. But this doesn't stop Hansen from creating a remarkable, vivid blanket of subtext and a very moving and dynamic character arc that is so strong. It sincerely is a great surprise how compelling Hansen's subtext and character arc is within the production.
Hansen possesses a pop tenor voice that has a slight hint of Adam Pascal (which is a great thing in my book). Once again, Hansen has fashioned new vocal riffs and inflections within his voice that give his songs a superior pop ambience. His duet with Elphaba is one of the major vocal highlights of the evening. His chemistry with both leading ladies is exquisite. But it is his chemistry with Elphaba that is both sensual and erotic. He physically and emotionally wraps Elphaba with raw, honest love. I don't know if you can see that all the way in the balcony of the Music Hall, but both actors are so into the moment during "As Long As You're Mine" that it's romantic and a bit sensually erotic. Which I thought was superior acting choices on both actors. I won't spoil it for you, but for his final scene with Elphaba, Hansen physically does something with his body that pays touching homage to the late Ray Bolger. Hansen delivers one of the best performances I've ever seen for the role of Fiyero.
This leaves us our two leading ladies, Jenn Gambatese as Glinda and Dee Roscioli as Elphaba.
When Ms. Gambatese came down on the bubble I immediately thought, "Hmmm. She looks familiar." Then it hit me — she portrayed Brenda, one of Corny's council kids, when I saw the original Broadway production of Hairspray in 2003. I know, it's a freak of nature within my brain cells that I can somehow remember Broadway performers (even ensemble), but forget to put gas in my car. The first thing you notice is Gambatese's diction. It is so crisp and clear. She makes sure each lyric is heard. Like past Glindas, Gambatese has to find her vision of this blonde, mean girl who transforms into a sincere, loving woman. She has to erase Kristen Chenoweth out of the audience's minds. I have seen both Chenoweth and Megan Hilty in the role.
Gambatese easily wins over the audience with her magnificent performance. She finds an endless array of new comic zingers, bits and comedic staging that bewitches the audience in laughter. Her facial expressions result in side-splitting guffaws that poured out of Thursday night's audience. There are several scenes in which she has to hold character due to the prolonged laughter. I howled over the whole "toss, toss" hair sequence during "Popular." She never once lets a comedic moment pass her by. She unveils some hysterical new comedy that I've never seen a Glinda do before. This extremely talented girl has the rare gift of natural comedy. She knows exactly where to change a facial expression, vocal inflection, or body gesture to generate even greater laughs. Her second act work, where Glinda transforms from the blonde bimbo into a woman who lost her love and best friend, well it is a remarkable, heartbreaking transformation to observe. Gambatese peels layer after layer of subtext to see so clearly Glinda's heart ache and betrayal.
Gambatese has a crystal pure soprano voice that can glide from high operatic notes to comedy Broadway pizzazz in a flip of a second. She turns "Popular" into a show stopper of a number with her razor sharp comedy. Later on she shows the great pain of losing her love with the "I'm Not that Girl" reprise.
One of my all-time favorite songs in Schwartz's Wicked score is the duet, "For Good," and Gambatese and Dee Roscioli, as Elphaba, do not disappoint. They turn this duet into one of the most beautiful, emotional numbers of the night. I again wiped tears off my face during that song. The lyrics come straight from the heart how we feel about those we love and how they have changed us. Have your tissues out and ready once you hear Gambatese and Roscioli sing this duet! Gambatese very smartly interjects foreshadowing from the very first scene. If you know the show or have seen it, then you know what happens at the end. Watch Gambatese's facial expressions and demeanor during the opening number "No One Mourns the Wicked," then the last few measures when an ensemble member shouts out, "Didn't you know her [Elphaba]?" Her facial expression is priceless for it so displays what we already know what the outcome is. Then view her at the end of the show, as the chorus starts to sing the "Finale" behind the clock backdrop, Glinda's breaking heart is displayed with such organic honesty on Gambatese's face and you will wipe a tear watching her try to regain her composure. Ms. Gambatese delivers an original creation of Glinda that results in a phenomenal performance.
Schwartz composed the score of Wicked to fit those out of this world, soaring vocal pipes that Menzel has. The character has three big solos that have humongous belting endings. I have seen since Menzel other talented ladies put on the pointy black hat. I have seen excellent, stunning work from Eden Espinosa and Stephanie J. Block in the role. But I've also seen other actresses struggle with the extremely difficult and challenging score. They either have cracked on the high notes, went off key, or could not sustain the notes to the cut offs.
Dee Roscioli has played the role of Elphaba more than any other actress in the history of Wicked. You would think this girl would be burned out and bored to death after having done the role on Broadway, in Chicago for its lengthy run, and then on the road. Um, that would be a huge HELL NO! She performed Thursday night like it was her official opening night.
Roscioli excavates unbelievable new comedy that no actress has done with the role before. Elphaba is not known as a "true" comedic role, but Roscioli unearths this wealth of comedic moments, bits and delivery that achieves ear-shattering laughter. Her comedic timing, pace and delivery is glistening perfection. She knows exactly where to put the beats to wring out the best laughs. And those facial expressions! She uses her face to be the final "button" on a comedic moment, zinger, or bit. There are so many acting choices that Roscioli takes with the role, blending them into a very unique, original performance that is marvelous to watch unfold. There are scenes and lines that with her superlative acting tools had the audience wildly applauding her. I don't remember ever seeing a previous Elphaba do this, but in the Second Act Roscioli lets out the infamous Margaret Hamilton cackle. The audience ate it up and gave her a thundering applause.
Roscioli's character arc and subtext are astonishing to observe. Her Second Act stays in the darker, more dramatic shades of emotion. Roscioli pierces through our heart with her pain, loss, and anger. She rips wide open for all to see her devastation of losing her loved ones and having nowhere to go. She has the audience in the palms of her green hands and they fall in love with her. She has several dramatic scenes that play out with raw, organic honesty. And remember, this is a musical. Roscioli explores that subtext in ways I've never seen an Elphaba do before.
Her chemistry with everyone on stage is beautiful to watch. Her battles with Madame Morrible and the great Oz show a woman with power who won't be defeated. With Curt Hansen, as Fiyero, their sensual, erotic chemistry would make Cupid cover his eyes with his wings and say, "Um I'll leave you two alone, but come on - get a room!"
But it is her chemistry with Jenn Gambatese that really tugs at the heart of the audience. They play off each other like they have been best friends since kindergarten. Neither actress tries to upstage the other. Both share the spotlight equally. They bounce off each other both with comedy and drama to extraordinary results. As stated earlier, their duet of "For Good" is a major show stopper of the evening.
Finally, there is Roscioli's singing voice. All I can say is oh my God! This girl has a set of vocal pipes that would make any performer throw in the towel and say, "You win!" It is a powerhouse of a soprano voice that contains a commanding and forceful belt that reaches the heavens and beyond. In those major belting endings in "The Wizard and I," "Defying Gravity," and "No Good Deed," she belts like there's no tomorrow. But she does this with a superlative soprano voice that never once cracks. And she sustains to the very end of each song. I was mesmerized by her singing voice. It is that rare singing voice that just floors you so much that your jaw hits the floor in disbelief. Ms. Roscioli gives a tour de force, towering, unparalleled, performance as Elphaba. She displays on that stage a once in a lifetime performance that you will never forget.
This current tour of Wicked will not disappoint whatsoever. They have not brought in some third rate bus and truck tour that has scaled down the brilliant design elements of the original Broadway or first national tour. They have kept all the bells and whistles. But what makes this Wicked tour so special and unique is the current cast. They each bring to the table exciting, impressive, new approaches to both their characters and the material. It's like a whole new vision of Wicked that you have never seen before! And that is so rare in today's plethora of national tours. You will greatly regret if do not go see this version of Wicked!
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