Theater review: 'Wicked' uneven but delightful as ever

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The "Wicked" showstopper "Defying Gravity" is one of those transcendent moments when a composition, a character and special effects come together to deliver musical theater magic, even after multiple viewings.

I've seen "Wicked" a couple of times on Broadway and a couple in Pittsburgh, so I'm somewhere between the woman who wrote to say she'd experienced the Tony-nominated show 38 times and the couple of "Wicked" newbies who accompanied me to the Benedum Center Thursday night.

  • Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.
  • When: Through Oct. 2. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: $35.25-$138.25; or 412-456-4800. A day-of-performance in-person lottery for a limited number of $25 cash-only orchestra seats will be held 21/2 hours before showtime at the Theater Square Box Office, 655 Penn Ave., Downtown. Names will be placed in a lottery drum for a drawing 30 minutes later.

The avid theatergoers were charmed and occasionally blown away and I was admittedly less so, but I'd still see it again. It's a big, bold theatrical spectacle that gives insight into beloved characters in the days before Dorothy landed in Oz.

"Wicked" is a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" that explains how the Wicked Witch of the West came to be wicked, and the first-act climax, "Defying Gravity," is her declaration of activism as a high-flying, rebellious teenager. That's right. The Wicked Witch we all came to think of as filmdom's Margaret Hamilton here is a misunderstood, green-skinned schoolgirl named Elphaba (after L. Frank Baum, the author of "Oz"). In the latest tour to pass through Pittsburgh, she's played by Anne Brummel with the big voice and gusto the part demands.

Her outwardly mean, green persona is mismatched in perky blondness by Natalie Daradich's ditzy Glinda, who becomes Glinda the Good. Ms. Daradich kicks up her shallow character's heels and emphasizes the comedy before personal and political matters take a dramatic turn, and the audience on Thursday seemed to loved it.

The musical by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and writer Winnie Holzman keeps the kernel of Gregory Maguire's novel of the same name that throws together Elphaba and Glinda as roommates who loathe each other. The theatrical team takes it from there, with the original concept of how the girls come to be best friends before circumstances and ambitions send them off in different directions.

The production now at the Benedum Center is uneven in the voice department but visually stunning. You can see the care in every green thread and details like the ruby-red slippers tucked among a neat rack of Glinda's shoes.

Threads of our universal familiarity with "The Wizard of Oz" are woven throughout "Wicked," giving it an automatic boost with audiences. When Elphaba is on the run and visits her troubled, silver-shoed sister, she's asked why she had come. "There's no place like home," she answers, a line that received spontaneous applause on Thursday night.


My problem with any new cast may be that I have the soundtrack by the original Broadway cast -- Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Norbert Leo Butz and Joel Grey, all Tony winners in their careers -- embedded in my brain waves, so perhaps my expectations are high. For instance, David Nathan Ferlow's graceful Fiyero, the love interest of both witches, strained against the range of "Dancing Through Life," a song that requires the appearance of effortlessness as the character explains the pleasantries of leading "the unexamined life." He did more to win me over when Fiyero springs into action in the second act.

As The Wizard, veteran actor Don Amendolia didn't match the fire of the ladies, including Alma Cuervo as the deliciously devious Madame Morrible. And if you are familiar with the original cast of "Wicked," you may be struck by how Dan Pacheco is a dead ringer, voice-wise, for Christopher Fitzgerald as the Munchkin Boq.

The tour looks great, even after repeated viewings, with the Tony-winning set by scenic designer Eugene Lee (Carnegie Mellon University '62) and costumes by Susan Hilferty striking the right notes of Ozian magic, both light and dark. It all complements a girl-power show that delights tween girls but has something for the whole family. There are adult themes, such as a cheating wife and the powers that be blaming scapegoats for the country's woes, and it has some scares for kids, but nothing scarier than when, say, the Wicked Witch hurls fire balls at Scarecrow in the beloved MGM movie.

Ms. Holzman's ability to weave a new story from a popular one and fill it with humor and drama, along with Mr. Schwartz's soaring score and clever lyrics, have kept "Wicked" on Broadway since 2003, and it has been a fixture in theaters around the globe ever since.

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.


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