By now most people know what Wicked is about, so let's get to the question I've been asked most: How does the current ensemble compare to the company that played the Fox in 2005, when the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical was two years fresher? It's a fair query; the Producers that returned for a second viewing was a pallid copy of the original national touring company. This current Wicked, on the other hand, is every bit as polished as the version that sold out the Fox in '05. The visual pyrotechnics remain the same; the sets haven't yet been trimmed down. The orchestra sounds as rich as it did before. But what is more edifying on this go-round is the fact that the two leading actresses mesh so well together.
Wicked is a curiously schizophrenic piece. When it wisely veers away from its source, the dark and florid 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, to instead focus on the begrudging friendship between the shallow, materialistic Galinda (soon to be known as the Good Witch Glinda) and the outcast, antisocial yet utterly admirable Elpheba (whose sense of ethics will compel her to become the Wicked Witch of the West), Wicked is snappy, snazzy and occasionally thrilling. But if the show is to truly satisfy, those two roles must be performed with equal finesse. Here, they are.
Katie Rose Clarke's Galinda is a vivacious and charming bubblehead who also happens to possess keen timing, clear diction and a superb soprano voice. She's part of that pool of wonderfully talented young actresses for whom there are not enough new Broadway musicals. Carmen Cusack marvelously captures the quietude, sincerity and sensitivity of Elphaba. It's hard to "see" someone who's hidden behind green makeup, but midway through Act One we get a clue. Galinda tries to spruce up Elphaba. Perhaps she succeeds too well, for the startled socialite exclaims, "Miss Elphaba, you're beautiful!" Suddenly for that one moment, as Cusack sits utterly still with her long black tresses hanging over her shoulders, I felt as if I was gazing at da Vinci's Mona Lisa come to life. Green of course, but Mona Lisa nevertheless. A classic, if enigmatic, beauty. That's Elphaba, for sure.
Cusack and Clarke share Wicked's two most memorable moments. "Defying Gravity" (though I wouldn't want to have to sing it eight times a week), is a roof-raising power rush that fully meshes all elements of theater — lighting, sound, scenic design, music, voice — to make us feel as if we too are virtually levitating from our seats. Then in stunning contrast, yet equally impressive due to the sheer purity of its simplicity, is the Act Two duet "For Good," which Clarke and Cusack sing with tender emotion. It is a haunting ballad that deserves to live long beyond Wicked, if such a thing is possible.
Alas, it's when the script strives to be faithful to the Byzantine themes of the original novel that the schizophrenia kicks in. With the appearance of the Wizard, we're bludgeoned with plot developments that come almost too fast to follow. Confusions that I felt during the first viewing were not clarified by a second.
So Wicked, while stirring, is not a "perfect storm" of a musical. But when it soars, it taps into sensations we too rarely feel in theaters these days. Phenomenal? You bet.