'Wicked' still a delight in new Chicago run

  • Elphaba (Jackie Burns) gets schooled on how to be "Popular" by her new insistently-imposed BFF Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) in the Broadway musical blockbuster "Wicked," playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 23.

    Elphaba (Jackie Burns) gets schooled on how to be "Popular" by her new insistently-imposed BFF Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) in the Broadway musical blockbuster "Wicked," playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 23.

  • The Oz witches Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) and Elphaba (Jackie Burns) reflect on their sometimes rocky friendship in the Broadway musical blockbuster "Wicked," playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 23.

    The Oz witches Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) and Elphaba (Jackie Burns) reflect on their sometimes rocky friendship in the Broadway musical blockbuster "Wicked," playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 23.

  • The Oz witches Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) and Elphaba (Jackie Burns) get into a major spat after Dorothy Gale's house crash lands in Munchkinland in the Broadway musical blockbuster "Wicked," now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 23.

    The Oz witches Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) and Elphaba (Jackie Burns) get into a major spat after Dorothy Gale's house crash lands in Munchkinland in the Broadway musical blockbuster "Wicked," now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 23.

 
 
Updated 12/4/2010 2:48 PM

The antenna atop Chicago's Willis Tower was illuminated bright green Friday night, a coincidental welcome back to Elphaba (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) on the press opening night of the musical "Wicked" at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

"Wicked's" triumphant Chicago return is via one of two national touring companies of the 2003 Broadway blockbuster, and it still proves itself to be a well-oiled machine that delivers a heady dose of theatrical spectacle and touching (if somewhat muddled) storytelling.

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Now, some die-hard "Wicked" fans will note slight changes in the physical production from the musical's record-breaking run of more than 1,500 performances from 2005 to 2009 at Chicago's Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre.

Eugene Lee's Tony Award-winning set design feels a shade smaller in this touring incarnation, with not quite as many twinkling lights in the "Ozdust Ballroom" scene and a more-mechanized hovering dragon above the stage. Also, the built-in stage framing staircases are now gone in favor of elevated platforms wheeled on from the wings.

But aside from these minor physical changes, "Wicked" retains director Joe Mantello's staging magic in depicting a revisionist take on "The Wizard of Oz." And it's all lushly illustrated throughout by Susan Hilferty's whimsically plush costumes and Kenneth Posner's color-saturated lighting design.

This "Wicked" cast is also uniformly strong, with some members finding small ways to break out of the vivid templates of the show's many memorable predecessors.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As the green-skinned Elphaba, Jackie Burns cuts a more diminutive figure and doesn't powerfully land her comic lines the way that former "Saturday Night Live" alumna Ana Gasteyer did when she played the role in Chicago. Yet Burns brings a touching vulnerable quality (and commanding vocal pipes to deliver Stephen Schwartz's power ballad-heavy score) to the outcast girl with magical skills who stands up for the rights of others.

As the future "Good Witch" Glinda, Chandra Lee Schwartz makes for a very entertaining blonde and bubbly girly-girl (she's the Oz ancestor to the fashionista Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde The Musical," which coincidentally played the Rosemont Theatre this weekend). Though her coloratura soprano singing at the top of the show didn't sound entirely secure on opening night, Schwartz found other ways to impress throughout, particularly when she found her own individual comic flourishes in her big attempted-makeover number "Popular."

Richard H. Blake is cool and laid-back as the love-triangle bad-boy love interest Fiyero, while Justin Brill brings a nice earnestness to the munchkin Boq who pines for Glinda (but is ultimately ensnared by Stephanie Brown's possessive Nessarose, Elphaba's sister).

And longtime Chicago theater fans should be happy to see local actors like Gene Weygandt (the Wizard), Barbara Robertson (Madame Morrible) and Paul Slade Smith (Doctor Dillamond) doing such respectable work in a big touring Broadway show.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The only remaining quibbles I have with "Wicked" are personal issues with the show itself, which have only grown larger upon my fifth viewing.

Playwright Winnie Holzman's book is at its best when depicting the school-age battles between the goth-like outcast of Elphaba sparring with the sunny backbiting of popular girl Glinda. And the show's message of how people can be unfairly demonized as "others" by those who are only concerned with gaining power and dominance remain unfortunately very timely.

What disappoints me is the near Hollywood-style happy ending that is tacked on to the musical instead of Gregory Maguire's more dour ending in the original novel. And that "happy" ending of the musical essentially becomes a character cop-out for Elphaba, who essentially gives up fighting because she realizes she's not as acceptable (re: beautiful) as Glinda is for the masses of outraged Oz citizens.

"Wicked" is many wonderful things and still demands to be seen as powerful musical theater. But after repeated viewings and more thought, the play doesn't fully embody the girl-power show that it purports to be.