Arts & Culture » Theater

Put a Spell on You

Pure and simple, Wicked rocks


There's always room on Broadway for another smash-hit musical. But Wicked, which after more than two years in New York is still the highest-grossing show every week, and which has sold out the Fox Theatre into December, is more than a hit: Wicked is a phenomenon, a retelling of the oh-so-familiar Wizard of Oz story that manages to engage, entertain and even surprise audiences of all ages.

Based on the dark 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire that revisits Oz through the eyes of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, the show retains the novel's oblique approach while doing all it can to thin down the book's dense political and social themes. This Wicked never forgets that first and foremost it is a musical, which is why the real unsung hero here — the man who was virtually ignored in the New York reviews and then was rebuffed by Tony Award voters — is composer Stephen Schwartz.

Schwartz has written an airborne pop score (brilliantly and exotically orchestrated by William David Brohn) that soars from song to song. The first show-stopper comes early in the evening when the evergreen Elpheba (who is named after the initials of L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900) allows herself to imagine that the elusive Wizard might be willing to de-greenify her. As performed with spectacular all-stops-out assurance and hope by Stephanie J. Block, this is the kind of number that some musicals save for the finale, but we're only getting started.

Act One continues to build with a bevy of sprightly tunes — "What Is This Feeling?" "Dancing Through Life," "Popular," "One Short Day." Schwartz is known for his ebullient music, but nothing he has written heretofore could prepare one for the inventive lyrics that pour from the stage like a star shower.

Early on, Wicked establishes the strained relationship between the antisocial Elpheba and the materialistic Glinda, later to emerge as the Good Witch of the North. Elpheba and Glinda are so incompatible, it's easy to think of Act One as The Parent Trap Goes Green. Smart move, because chronicling the evolution of this unlikely friendship is what Wicked does best. As Glinda, Kendra Kassebaum is a crowd pleaser whose tart delivery makes the most of librettist Winnie Holzman's often hilarious lines. (When Elphaba grows obsessed with reclaiming her dead sister's ruby slippers, Glinda reprimands, "They're just shoes. Get over it.") Block and Kassebaum share the stage in the Act One finale, "Defying Gravity," a cyclone of a duet that reminds us of how incomparably enthralling live musical theater can be.

Act Two also has some memorable music, including the final haunting ballad between Glinda and Elphaba, "For Good." But the plotting gets a little thicker in Act Two, and Wicked never quite knows how to handle the Wizard. Judy Garland's 1939 movie Wizard was lovable old Frank Morgan. In Maguire's novel the Wizard is revealed as a petty tyrant presiding over a corrupt, decaying society. The musical tries to have it both ways. The Wizard is menacing one moment, then performs a soft-shoe routine in the next. "Wonderful," the Wizard's big Act Two number, is the only song all night that brings the plot to a standstill. Nevertheless, by evening's end — and it's a long evening, nearly three hours — you probably won't want the show to end.

Which leads to another reason for Wicked's success: Its intelligence, its sense of craft and its imagination blend to concoct a fable that is almost always one broom-sweep ahead of the audience. "It's looking at things another way," one of the principal characters says as the story draws to a close. A repeat viewing is almost mandatory in order to follow everything.

There are quibbles. The production seems overproduced. (Why is that dragon looming over the stage?) The choreography isn't very helpful. But always we return to the songs, and to Stephanie J. Block's empathetic handling of them. The only downside to Schwartz's sassy, stirring, addictive pop score is that it renders the MGM movie music quaintly old-fashioned. Despite the fact that The Wizard of Oz gave Wicked its reason for being, it's just possible that "Over the Rainbow" will never sound quite the same again.

Although he's only nineteen, already Warren Straub has developed a profound "talent for misery." His sister was senselessly murdered, and now, for no apparent reason, he's just stolen $15,000 in cash from his uncaring dad. But Warren is essentially a teenage innocent. His role model, a 21-year-old drug dealer named Dennis, is more in tune with the ways of the world. Dennis has his own Upper West Side apartment, which is where This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan's unsavory chronicle of low dealings among the upper crust in 1982 New York City, takes place. But neither of these future leaders of the 21st century is what you'd call mature.

In case you can't pick that up from the rat-a-tat, machine-gun dialogue (of which there is an abundance), Dennis' apartment is littered with athletic equipment. The script calls for a football. In addition there's a soccer ball, a basketball (and hoop), a bowling pin, golf clubs, a tennis racquet, a baseball glove and bat, boxing gloves, in-line skates. OK already, we get it: They're still playing games.

Then midway through Act Two Warren has a bust-up with his new girlfriend, Jessica. The matrix for their split is a 1914 Chicago Cubs baseball cap purchased at the first game ever played at Wrigley Field and passed down to Warren from his grandfather. Jessica says she wants the cap, but she doesn't really. Warren says she can have it, but he doesn't really want to lose it. For just a moment, the play deftly reminds us of how easy it is for relationships to get snarled in the confusing maze of half-truths.

According to the script, as Jessica exits the apartment (and, alas, the play), she is supposed to leave the baseball cap on a table. But here Jessica hangs the Cubs cap on a baseball bat standing next to the front door. That brief visual image provides the perfect ending to the evening's most resonant exchange.

Earlier this year the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged an involving production of Lonergan's Lobby Hero in the Studio. Now this second Lonergan play is the Rep's final offering in its debut Off-Ramp series at the Grandel Theatre. This Is Our Youth is not as satisfying as was Lobby Hero. But it does confirm Lonergan's facility for writing rich, multifaceted female roles. Jessica is a spindly mass of contradictions. She is so young, so old, so wise, so scared. Her arrival at the apartment midway through Act One infuses the evening with a much-needed sense of surprise. Why is she here? What does she want? Is she in danger? Kristina Valada-Viars is a wonderfully natural actress, halting and spontaneous and true. When she's onstage, This Is Our Youth actually seems to be about something.

In a production that has been tightly directed by John Ruocco, all three actors excel. Brian Petersson's self-absorbed Dennis is persuasively, obnoxiously reptilian. As the hapless Warren, Will Rogers is ingenuously charming. It's the play rather than the production that gives pause. Despite the mandatory spew of profanity and the onstage drug-taking and the obligatory flushing toilet, all this relentless realism doesn't add up to very much. Nor do the occasional references to American politics that are supposed to give the play "significance."

Every once in a rare while a movie like Rebel Without a Cause or The Graduate does succeed in capturing a moment in time. Since its debut nine years ago, Lonergan's drama has been proclaiming itself as an evocation of America's lost soul during the materialistic Reagan 1980s. Poppycock. To suggest that This Is Our Youth defines anything outside of its own myopic cokehead universe is to layer on a specious self-importance that simply does not exist.

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