The green one has returned. “Wicked,” the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical that ended its initial run in Chicago in January 2009 after attracting more than 3 million people to the Oriental Theatre during a record-breaking 3 1/2-year stay, has settled back in town for a seven-week holiday season engagement.
A great deal has changed in the world since the show’s first visit and its brief subsequent returns. And because theater is such an organic thing, the meaning of its story seems to have shifted in emphasis, too, even if it remains entirely faithful to Joe Mantello’s original staging, the grandiose design of Eugene Lee (sets), Susan Hilferty (costumes) and Kenneth Posner (lighting), and the spectacle of the gravity-defying Elphaba, an army of flying monkeys and all the rest.
The show, which previously seemed to emphasize the “mean girls” mentality of its time — and notably attracted a crowd of mothers and their preteen daughters to experience a tale of acceptance and friendship, no matter how troubled, jealousy-streaked or contentious it might be — now has a far more Orwellian slant. The Wizard of Oz is vaguely suggestive of a certain president, the scapegoating and silencing of a professor is all too recognizable, and the ever-morphing power play between Elphaba and Galinda/Glinda plays like a metaphor for many high-stakes political rivalries, with neither woman having a monopoly on goodness.
‘WICKED’ Recommended When: Through Jan. 21, 2018 Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Tickets: $62 – $212 Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
True, the political elements of the story were always there. But given the anger-driven mentality at work in so many parts of the world now (with impulsive, bullying leaders on multiple continents, the burgeoning of “fake news,” and more), it is the show’s look at the nature of power, censorship and even the rewriting of history that has come into sharper relief.
“Wicked,” based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” is a quirky prequel to L. Frank Baum’s beloved 1900 novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and the glorious 1939 film it inspired. Baum’s world was certainly not without its violence and pain. But “Wicked” has always felt a great many shades darker, even if its second-act anthem, “For Good,” about the way the people we encounter can leave an indelible mark, is streaked with ambivalence.
The current national touring production could not be more highly polished, with Mary Kate Morrissey fierce yet never shrill (as so many Elphabas have been) as the green-skinned outcast, and Ginna Claire Mason just shrewd yet clueless enough as Galinda/Glinda, the “popular” blonde with Eva Peron-like instincts. Both, as it turns out, are political creatures with their own particular ways of controlling things. But then so are Nessarose (Catherine Charlebois), Elphaba’s disabled sister, and Mrs. Morrible (the superb Judy Kaye, who has played the role on Broadway), the university headmistress who becomes the Wizard’s press secretary, and the ne’er-do-well Wizard himself (Tom McGowan).
The story’s most noble character might just be Dr. Dillamond (Harry Bouvy), the free-thinking teacher in the guise of a goat, who, in fact, is scapegoated. And while not the brightest bulb, it is Fiyero (Jon Robert Hall) — the handsome, vacuous object of all the women’s affections — who is driven to take some courageous action.
“Wicked” might very well be the most wildly plot-heavy Broadway musical ever devised, and often it feels weighed down by so much story. But at Friday night’s performance, the tiny 4-year-old girl seated in front of me stood throughout the entire show, holding on to the seat in front of her in a state of rapt attention. With an IQ that must be off the charts (she read the program at intermission), she followed every twist and turn in the story. She had seen “Wicked” once before (along with “The Lion King” and “School of Rock”), but when asked what she thought it was all about she said, “I have to see how it turns out.” The ideal audience, and perhaps a future director.
One final note: The long anticipated film version of “Wicked” is set for 2019, with Stephen Daldry (who staged the musical “Billy Elliot”) as director. No casting has been announced yet, but if the producers opt for “names” I could easily see Lady Gaga as Elphaba and Taylor Swift as Glinda. How about it?