WICKED enchants crowds at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati

With the famous and fabulous Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, the Aronoff continues to bring the most entertaining blockbusters to Cincinnati. The crowd on Thursday September 14th was filled with parents and their children bubbling with excitement. Super fans were in costume and Wicked merchandise flew off the shelves. Dubbed the best musical of the decade in advertisements (although the last decade is the second national tour and 14th year), Wicked continues to draw large crowds. Nominated for several Tonys in 2004, it won it for best actress (Idina Menzel) and best costume and stage design. It also boosted the careers of its stars Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth who established the roles of Elphaba and Glinda.

Based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Wicked tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West and the good witch Glinda before Dorothy and Toto flock to town. The witches meet at school and slowly and reluctantly become best friends. Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) is a gifted student but a social outcast. Glinda is her opposite. Fiyero is the handsome and initially flat prince who wins the hearts of both women. Events set in motion when Elphaba is invited to meet the Wizard of Oz and she and Glinda take the trip to The Emerald City. Shortly thereafter, Dorothy and Toto storm into town, and the events of Frank L. Baum’s classic are viewed from a completely different angle.

More than a decade before we heard the word “privilege” in any meaningful way, this story shows how skin color, not covered in fur (that makes sense when you see it), wealth, size, and, um, blondness, can you give a free ticket. Although Glinda “the good witch” had a more confused and treacherous moral compass than Elphaba ever, she was loved and admired without having to do anything other than be her beautiful, rich self. This is a story of apparitions and prejudice. About spin and false news. It is about creating unity among the majority by finding an “other” to blame and making that other pay for it by systematically depriving them of their rights and freedoms. It’s about telling lies to hold onto power.

The “great and terrible” Wizard of Oz, played by Tom McGowan (Frasier fans will recognize him immediately), sings Elphaba: “I am a sentimental man who always longed to be a father …” But in truth It’s him a coward and a con man and possibly a date rapist who starts dating after getting women drunk with a mysterious green juice. But the masses cannot see past his powerful and successful facade and worship him. He could probably shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and people would still love him.

In the meantime, Elphaba’s intentions are twisted and so misunderstood that she has to hide in the forest forever. (Perhaps a lucky fan will come across her and take a selfie!) Her reputation has been terminally tarnished and she is hated and misunderstood until generations of minds slowly open up and the history books are revised to tell a different story – like The Untold Tale of the Witches of Oz. This tells the story of how women can be shunned, castigated, and ignored because they look different – sometimes treated as if they are deliberately trying to insult – unless their deformity is accidental “tragically beautiful”. And Heaven forbids them to add skills to anything. Then a woman becomes something to be feared, reviled and despised.

Substitute Chelsea Emma Franko did an admirable job as Elphaba. She stayed behind a little to make the iconic part her own (unlike Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda, who seemed comfortable with that line between “Am I going to Kristin Chenoweth or can I find my own Glinda?”) To go to the full support of the audience from the moment she entered. She worked hard and pulled us to the goal. Mason was completely relaxed and comically charming in the role of Glinda. With excellent timing and physicality, she seemed made for the role. Jon Robert Hall as Fiyero got off to a difficult start (his dance was not on par) but as Fiyero’s character became more sincere, so did his performance. That, combined with his ridiculous size and beauty, made him perfect for the role.

Fourteen years after it premiered on Broadway, Wicked was shockingly current and far more substantial than I expected. It was bizarre how much it seemed to reflect certain current events. In all fairness the music is the only thing that seems to have aged; it certainly sounds like it was from “that time”. But we all love the musicals we grew up with. I dedicate myself to Les Miz, but I know others (like CNN’s snarky reporters) who’d prefer to hear nails scratched across a chalkboard.

I’m not surprised that Winnie Holzman was nominated for a Tony for her clever and subversive book. Perhaps she was partially nominated for her mastery of editing as the story never goes into detail but still seems to tell just enough. It seems frugal or rushed and yet you get invested, love the characters, and care about what happens in the end. Of course, having the Wizard of Oz osmosed into everyone’s consciousness helps by making the clunky portrayal and backstory unnecessary.

But in the end I was most amazed at how purely Wicked tells a woman’s story. With so many stories featuring female lead roles (even those written by women), the woman is still reacting to things around her while the men carry out all of the real action. (Just because she has the most lines doesn’t mean it’s the woman’s story.) But Elphaba takes matters into her own hands and drives that action, and she does it in a purely feminine way. She doesn’t have to act like a man or have the strength of a man to be powerful. She is a witch. There’s nothing more feminine than that, and sure people want to hate witches, but Wicked turns it all upside down. She owns the word. She uses her fear against them and saves herself, those she loves, and possibly all of Oz in the process. And that’s from fourteen years ago! In today’s climate, it doesn’t seem possible that this story crept through and was so successful. One thing is for sure, it was a response from the dozen of little girls (and boys, as well as big girls and boys) in Aronoff’s audience, and I wholeheartedly endorse Elphaba as a role model for anyone feeling green. Because as a famous frog once said … “It’s not easy …”

WICKED is playing at the Aronoff Center: 650 Walnut St. Cincinnati, OH 45202 until October 15th. Get your tickets here!

Photo from the Broadway.org website.

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