Entertainment » Theatre

Wicked

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jun 9, 2017
Ginna Claire Mason and Jessica Vosk in 'Wicked'
Ginna Claire Mason and Jessica Vosk in 'Wicked'  (Source:Ja Marcus)

Imagine a magical land where the inhabitants represent an array of diversity but where fascist leaders drum up division and race hatred for their own benefit. It's not hard to do; pick up a newspaper.

Or buy tickets to "Wicked."

Surprising, right? Turns out what Dorothy saw wasn't everything there was to that far-flung nation that exists in the realm of the imagination (or, in any case, somewhere over the rainbow). In fact, what we thought we knew about Oz and its residents -- including the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good -- has been taken entirely out of context and severely garbled. That, at least, is seemingly the idea behind the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel and the phenomenally successful Broadway musical it spawned.

The musical -- with tuneful, lyrically clever songs by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman -- has landed in Boston, and is playing through July 23. The musical has been in Boston before, several times, and this production can hold its head up proudly as a magnificently staged evening of theatrical magic.

The story centers around the friendship between Elphaba and Galinda -- the same two magical ladies referenced above. Who knew that the Wicked Witch of the West even had another name? Or that Glinda's moniker once sported an extra syllable? These surprises are just the tip of a narrative iceberg. The true revelations concern just who Elphaba (Jessica Vosk) and Galinda (Ginna Claire Mason) are, and who they used to be, and neither is as clear cut as you might think.


Ginna Claire Mason and Jeremy Woodard in 'Wicked'  (Source:Joan Marcus)

The two might seem like enemies in the Frank L. Baum novel from 1900, and the 1939 musical film that followed, but actually they are besties from way back. Their friendship started when they were teenagers at an exclusive school. Galinda is the stylish blonde, so pert and bubbly that she's an instant hit wherever she goes; she's naturally as vacuous and effervescent as a television presenter, an attribute that opens some pretty impressive doors later on. Elphaba, meantime, has spent her life as an outcast; born with green skin, she's been relegated to second-class ... makes that zero-class ... status since infancy, and her life has been devoted to caring for her disabled younger sister. In fact, she's only at school because her sister has been accepted there and needs someone to look after her. No one at the school likes Elphaba -- not even Galinda, at first -- but one of the professors, a sorceress named Madam Morrible (Isabel Keating) takes a shine to her when Elphaba's natural talent for magic reflexively manifests itself.

As the saying has it, it's not easy being green; then again, a constant adversarial relationship to the world at large has given Elphaba both smarts and perspective. When she realizes that the school's sole remaining animal professor (denigrated by others as an "old goat") is being fired thanks to a wave of intolerance sweeping the land, Elphaba finds herself roused to action. While she can't help the professor, she does mount a campaign to aid persecuted animals. She finds an ally for her cause in another student, the lazy and loutish Prince Fiyero (Jeremy Woodard). The two bond over the rescue of a terrified lion cub (just one of a number of shout-outs to the original story), and true love follows close behind -- to the jealous rage of Galinda, herself smitten by the handsome prince's shallow ways.


Jessica Vosk in 'Wicked'  (Source:Joan Marcus)

The spoiler-free version of what happens next is that the kids grow up and the adult world, with all its compromises and corruptions, beckons. Galinda becomes a beloved spokesperson for the powers that be, namely the Wizard (Fred Applegate), who -- sad to say, but in keeping with this topsy-turvy reinvention of Oz -- turns out to be less than wonderful. A lot less.

The story drags a little in Act One, but there's no dead space once Elphaba lays claim to her broom, defies gravity (to the strains of that popular song), and ends up being smeared as a villain. Machinations to entrap and destroy Elphaba result in a cyclone, a house falling out of the sky, and a series of events that you've probably heard something about but -- seen from this angle -- seem almost entirely unrecognizable. To frame it in the parlance of our age, Elphaba is a social justice warrior whose encounters with Dorothy seem to happen on her really bad days. (Such is, evidently, the karma of virtue signaling.)

The production is an utter delight. Painterly lighting -- featuring lots of greens and purples -- create a fantastical atmosphere, while the sets glide from one imaginative design and into another with the facility of a pop-up book. Time is a central motif -- perhaps because this is, for the most part, a prequel -- and a great clock face frames much of the action, while a great dragon's head surmounts the stage (and, on occasion, comes to life with glowing red eyes). Transformations take place with the startling seamlessness of an illusionist's show; this isn't a play that incorporates magical tricks, but magic is most definitely in the air.

Most enchanting of all, though, are the songs, which the leads deliver with impeccable artistry both musical and dramatic. Mason allows her vapid character to have layers and depths that, when needed, are solidly there to support the story; Vosk, meantime, transcends her makeup and her flying stunts alike, never allowing the trappings to steal the scene. What's more, she replicates and builds upon the physical mannerisms of Margaret Hamilton, the actress who portrayed the iconic Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film. It's a nifty touch that helps root this production in the same mythic soil where its iconic predecessor towers still.


"Wicked" continues through July 23 at the Opera House. For tickets and more information please go to http://boston.broadway.com/shows/wicked-ss2/cast/#loc=buzz-rr-about-show


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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