Stage review: 'Wicked,' with a strong cast, works its magic once again

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"Wicked," which opened Wednesday at the Benedum, is a cleverly written juggernaut of a musical that celebrated its 10th anniversary of drawing enthusiastic audiences to Broadway last year.

The show reimagines "The Wizard of Oz" story from the viewpoint of Elphaba (for author L. Frank Baum), a green-faced girl with long black hair who is destined to become the Wicked Witch of the West. She starts life as a social outcast and graduates to sorcery before learning to fly, literally and figuratively.

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: Through Feb. 9; 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.; 2 and 8 p.m. sat.; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.
Tickets: $39 to $149, are available; or 412-456-4800.

Elphaba's college roommate is the self-absorbed, golden-haired Glinda the Good, who is accustomed to getting whatever she wants, whether it's a special invitation to Madame Morrible's private sorcery seminar or a young man named Fiyero. Naturally, these two women compete for his attentions.

The happy and sad fates of some male and female characters in "Wicked" suggests that making clear-eyed, thoughtful choices instead of deluding yourself can be its own form of power. Ultimately, much of this musical's enduring appeal is about the joys and sorrows of friendship and how these relationships change us for the better.

Overall, the national touring company returns with a strong cast backed by an energetic chorus. It's a Broadway worthy production that's worth your time and entertainment dollar. Gina Beck is effectively effervescent as Glinda. Her strong, crystalline voice helps her nail an amusing number titled "Popular" while demonstrating her physical comedy talents. In one of the show's funniest moments, she tries valiantly to teach Elphaba how to toss her dark tresses in a flirtatious manner.

Glinda's sparkling tiara, colorful, flowing gowns and shoe collection would be the envy of any reigning European princess or Park Avenue socialite. At the opening, she floats onto the stage in a round, silvery contraption that emits bubbles (shades of the bubble entrance in "The Wizard of Oz" film). This is just the start of a production in which every number is a sumptuous visual feast because of the elaborate sets, fanciful costumes, richly textured makeup and intense lighting.

Nearly every facet of theatrical magic is employed. Rich waves of fog pour from the stage, and rain falls over a bridge. Agile, winged monkeys glide up and down the scenery. Internal gears of a giant clock frame the stage and turn frequently to create scene transitions. The golden head of the great and powerful Oz bellows and gyrates. An enormous Time Dragon, suspended from the Benedum's proscenium arch, features glowing red eyes.

Then, at the climax of Act I, Elphaba sings "Defying Gravity," ascending effortlessly as she transforms into the iconic wicked witch. Long rays of black, green and gold lighting create a visual vortex of evil.

In the role of Elphaba, Alison Luff's high-pitched cackle is pitch perfect, while her delivery of witty lines packs a comic punch. Her singing of this difficult score is fine, but at times I wanted her to enunciate just a bit more.

As Fiyero, Curt Hansen dances gracefully, and his height and good looks give him stage presence. His singing could use a bit more passion.

As the self-satisfied wizard, John Davidson clearly relishes playing the role of a corn-fed hick who became ruler of Oz simply because he floated into town in a balloon.

One of his big moments, a number called "Wonderful," is my favorite song in this show. The witty lyrics make it worthy of Cole Porter, my musical hero. I'd like Mr. Davidson to put just a bit more glee and verve into his singing and dancing because the audience deserves it and so does Stephen Schwartz, the man who composed it.

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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