Wicked fails to launch; theater season heats up

Alison Luff as Elphaba.
Alison Luff as Elphaba.
Photo by Joan Marcus

It was an absolutely packed weekend of theater, with more shows than I could hope to include in the newspaper. Here are some thoughts about a trio of recent productions that have made the scene.

Wicked, the Broadway mega-hit that remixes The Wizard of Oz, made its latest return to the Twin Cities over the weekend. It's a piece that, like the Wizard himself, loses a lot of luster once you get inside.

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Part of that is the structure, which attempts to condense Gregory Maguire's lengthy novel into a traditional two-act musical. There is so much sweep in the story that it becomes difficult for any characters except the leads to foster any kind of development. The show is also at its best when it focuses on the

Odd Couple

relationship between "wicked" Elphaba and goody-two-shoes Glinda. When that fades away in the machinery of the plot, the show weakens significantly.

Beyond that, and like most big-budget musicals, there isn't a lot of room for the actors to be much more than mechanical pieces, reflecting the clockwork-inspired set and the giant mecha-dragon that watches over the proceedings.

The leads, Alison Luff as Elphaba and Jenn Gambatese as Glinda, work well together, with Luff getting the best material to dig into along the way. Curt Hansen adds roguish charm as vain, shallow, but eventually heroic Fiyero though I wish there was more time to develop the relationship that he shares with the two women.

The biggest name here is John Davidson as the Wizard, but apart from a sudden desire to see a man fold himself into a tiny box while solving a Rubik's Cube, his presence doesn't do much here.

Really, Wicked is the kind of spectacle best experienced once. After that, there are definite diminished returns.

(Through October 27. Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. $49-$169. Call 1.800.982.2787 or visit online for more info.)

Wicked fails to launch; theater season heats up

Uncle Vanya sports too much energy

The Guthrie heads deep into the classics with the opening of the 2013-14 season, Uncle Vanya. The Chekhov play comes via a "version" by Irishman Brian Friel. It's a handsomely constructed and acted production that doesn't completely fall into place.

I'll have more thoughts on this next week, but some of that comes down to the performance by Andrew Weems as the title character. While expertly constructed and acted, Weems's character feels too robust and alive in the early scenes. His best moments come late in the game, as the crushing reality of his life and actions finally come to roost on his shoulders.

In fact, the opening scenes are so vibrant that the decay and ennui that sit at the center of the play are overwhelmed. Who wouldn't want to spend the summer at this particular estate?

(Through October 27. Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis. $29-$71. Call 612.377.2224 or visit online for tickets.)

Wicked fails to launch; theater season heats up

Demented cabaret

Finally, we have the latest incarnation of Mrs. SmithStrutting like a demented Elaine Stritch, Mrs. Smith -- the alter ego of performer David Hanbury -- wants to tell you a story about her fabulous career, her unusual life, and her life-long love of her beloved, missing kitty, Carlyle.

It's cabaret on acid, as Hanbury both celebrates classic torch songs and the women who defined them, and sends-up the clichés of the one-woman Broadway revue. What we get is a fast-paced show that expertly merges comedy and song, with a few soulful moments tossed in as well. Mrs. Smith is a survivor. She has played onstages around the world, been married 14 times, and has fought against adversity at every step. Her companion for much of that has been Carlyle, her black and white performing cat. Carlyle, however, has gone missing, leaving Mrs. Smith heartbroken.

That framework gives Hanbury a chance to interpret bits of Broadway ("Cabaret") and pop (Abba's "Knowing Me, Knowing You") with the assistance of the his dancing, singing pair of "Broadway Boys." The show reaches its comic apex on "The Ladies Who Lunch," which is presented as a special luncheon song for Pat Nixon, where our singer takes the song's boozy vibe to extremes. The demented staging (aided by director Andrew Rasmussen) and glorious staging and costumes all combine for a rollicking and fast-paced performance.


Through October 13. Camp Bar, 490 N. Robert. St., St. Paul. $17.50-$29.50. Call 1.800.838.3006 or visit online for tickets.)

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