Theater Spotlight: Wicked

copyright Joan Marcus

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WICKED
at the Orpheum Theatre through December 7
612.673.0404

"There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know," said Harry Truman in a notably gnomic moment. We can figure with near certainty that this lesson was not gleaned from a Broadway musical, yet it's as apt a summation as any for the plot of Wicked, five years on from its New York debut and playing here in an incarnation offering abundant charm and subversion. The story begins at the end of The Wizard of Oz, with good witch Glinda (Katie Rose Clarke) arriving in her translucent bubble and fielding questions from the people of Oz about the recently deceased Wicked Witch of the West. In a smooth segue, we travel back in time to the birth of Wicked Witch Elphaba (Donna Vivino), green skin and all, and her subsequent unpopularity in sorcerer's school, where Glinda rides a wave of popularity and self-love. Vivino gives us Elphaba as the spunky outsider idealist, while Clarke's Glinda is a catty social brute who undermines Elphaba at every turn. They end up friends, of course, and the story gets turned on its head: The kindly Wizard of Oz (Lenny Wolpe) turns out to be a manipulative dictator, and life in the lovely Emerald City a bit of a fascist sham. It's all great fun, played out amid flying monkeys, a great dragon's head looming over the stage, and Stephen Schwartz's tunes and lyrics folded seamlessly into the narrative (Vivino delivers the wistful "I'm Not That Girl" with a wallflower's sadness and a belter's pipes, and "Defying Gravity" before intermission captures Elphaba's mounting temptation for the dark side). In the second act, events take place behind the scenes of the Wizard film, with Glinda as a semi-willing figurehead for the increasingly brutal Oz regime, and Elphaba on the run, demonized as evil, and generally the same girl we've known all along. If there's a complaint, it's that the show is too long (a subplot about the Wizard's regrets over not having children makes sense by the end, but also requires a song of explication that we could do without). But, on balance, smarts and the story's weird bent win out. As the Wizard says, "Elphaba, where I'm from, we believe all sorts of things that aren't true. We call it history."

 
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