There were high-flying surprises both onstage and off at the opening-night performance of the mega-hit Wicked last week at the Fox. At the end of the intermission, an announcement was made that in Act Two the lead role of the antisocial yet utterly admirable (and totally green) witch Elphaba would be assumed by the standby. Although a sense of trepidation often ensues when a standby actually performs the role, there was no cause for concern here. Anne Brummel proved to be a worthy substitute for top-billed Vicki Noon. After the show ended, I even suggested to a friend that had stage management not announced the change, I never would have noticed it.
How right I was. Later that night I learned that Brummel had in fact slipped into the role midway through the first act, after Noon began to feel ill. Yet I doubt that anyone in the enthusiastic Fox audience was aware of the witch-switch. Which leads to all sorts of intriguing questions. How long does it take to green-ify the standby? Does Brummel have to green up at every performance on the slim chance that she might have to go on? And why are audiences so drawn to musicals at which we cannot recognize the face of the lead character? The same situation existed with the blockbuster Phantom of the Opera. When Phantom opened on Broadway, some of its more cynical patrons wondered aloud if Michael Crawford was even onstage. Anyone might have been behind the Phantom's mask, singing pre-recorded songs.
The fact that Elphebas are so easily interchangeable can be construed as either fortuitous or disconcerting, depending on your point of view. But one thing is indisputable: Regardless of who's playing the lead role, on its third visit to St. Louis, Wicked is still in fabulous shape. The Fox is hosting the second touring company. (The first is in Dallas.) There was a time in the theater when "second" was synonymous with cheap. But there is nothing second-rate about this production, which is a testament to the care that continues to be lavished by those who are shepherding the Wicked franchise. This imaginative variation on The Wizard of Oz remains a goose bump-inducing musical — flawed, to be sure, but a tale of metaphor, wonder and surprise. There's something inexplicable here: On each repeat viewing, not only does the show seem to grow richer and more resonant, but it also becomes fresher. Repeat viewers might feel as if they're seeing Wicked for the first time.
With addictive songs by Stephen Schwartz, innumerable high-tech effects and a red-eyed dragon threatening to breathe fire, Wicked races with the speed of a runaway train: Once it starts, you had best jump on or be left behind. Pity the poor actor who wants to add so much as an extra beat of emotion to a scene. Schwartz's underscoring only rarely allows for such flexibility. Yet in this rigidly programmed package, the entire cast excels. Don Amendolia is the first Wizard of Oz I've seen who has been able to make some sense of the role. The Wizard appears late, is burdened with a lot of exposition and is stuck with the evening's most expendable song, "Wonderful." Yet Amendolia manages to bring a likable quality to a difficult character. As Good Witch Glinda, Natalie Daradich also faces a daunting challenge, for she has to step into the mold of Kristin Chenoweth (who first played the role on Broadway) and, without breaking that mold, make the role her own. By evening's end Daradich displays a winning charm.
As Wicked continues to smash box-office records in St. Louis and around the world, it remains a unique alchemy of originality and conventionality. It also teaches a sage lesson to those who would write hit musicals of their own: Choose a protagonist the audience cannot recognize — we seem to love them.Click here for a complete list of St. Louis stage capsules.