“Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
Since opening in 2004 at Broadway’s Gershwin Theater, “Wicked” has become a staple of the Great White Way with the true story of the witches of Oz. Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel inspired by L. Frank Baum’s original story “The Wizard of Oz,” the tale takes a “true” look at the lives of the Wicked Witch of the West. Here named Elphaba (a play on the name of Oz’s original creator) she navigates a neglectful father, a spiteful sister and seemingly unrequited romance. “Wicked” runs at the Adrienne Arsht Center now until March 5 with tickets available here.
The show opens with the townspeople of Oz rejoicing as the Wicked Witch has been slain by an ordinary bucket of water. With a far darker spin on “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” the Ozians proudly proclaim that “No One Mourns the Wicked” as Glinda floats down in a steampunk bubble. From her first ebullient “It’s good to see me, isn’t it!” Jennafer Newberry who plays Glinda establishes herself as the glittery, polished matriarch of the Emerald City. As a slew of actresses have played the iconic foil to Elphaba from Kara Lindsay and Megan Hilty, Newberry’s Good Witch rendition riffs strongly from the Kristin Chenoweth playbook. Everything from her comedic line delivery of “Popular” to her head voice in the intro song evokes such a strong visage of the show’s original actress: a ditzy blonde rich girl who gains the consciousness to step up as the leader Oz needs. In the titular role of The Wicked Witch Elphaba, Lissa deGuzman plays the role with an unrivaled presence, heightened by the fact that she is barely ever off-stage. deGuzman has an understanding of how her rendition of the role stands on the shoulders of the actresses before her. While yes, “Defying Gravity” and “The Wizard and I” are bonafide showstoppers, deGuzman makes the Act 2 number “No Good Deed” absolutely soar off the stage. As the pivotal emotional core of the show where we see Elphaba transform into the cackling, Margaret Hamilton character of the original film, deGuzman options up to several astounding high notes beyond what the score calls for.
Ft. Lauderdale native Christian Thompson plays Fiyero with a leading man charm and an undeniable swagger that makes his “Dancing Through Life” such a charismatic number. In reference to the original “Wicked” novel, Fiyero is described as “dark or ochre” in color, so Thompson’s casting as a Black actor adds another sense of integrity to the source material. Especially with the show’s messaging about Elphaba being an outcast due to discrimination based on skin color and her empathy for the animal people of Oz, featuring both deGuzman and Thompson as people of color enriches the show’s messaging so much more. As the doting headmistress turned Wizard’s press secretary, Madame Morrible, Natalie Venetia Belcon plays the role in a way that reminds me of my first time seeing “Wicked” with Sheryl Lee Ralph. In a similar way to Ralph, Belcon finds the comedy, displays some serious vocal chops and ultimately shows a foreboding power as the headmistress of Shiz University. Disapproving sister Nessarose performed by Tara Kostmayer is given such standout moments in her solo song, sadly absent from the cast recording that it almost feels criminal how underutilized her character is for the actress’ monumental talent.
Composer Stephen Schwartz worked with book writer Winnie Holzman to translate the story of Gregory Maguire to the stage. Noted for his work on Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and Godspell, the musician composes a score that weaves the world-building of the original novel into the show. Glinda is given soft, musical theater songs in a head voice, Elphaba belts out epic rock-inspired tracks, and the Wizard of Oz especially performs vaudeville-style songs to reinforce that this human man was purely a showman that tricked all of Oz into believing he was simply great and powerful. Little Easter eggs and nods to the original 1939 film are woven into the music, with the “Unlimited/I’m limited” theme being a variation of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “No Good Deed” especially riffing on “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.” Choreographer Wayne Cilento has a minimal amount of features with the dance sequences of the show but the kinetic energy of movements with the ensemble allows the show and character motivations to move along effortlessly.
While steampunk may have had a resurgence in the 2010s, scenic designer Eugene Lee’s clock and cog based automated set sees massive pieces creating the many worlds of the land of Oz with a neo-futuristic energy. Costume designer Megan Hilferty weaves so many historical references into her intricately crafted outfits. From the 25 different kinds of rhinestones on Glinda’s bubble dress, to Elphaba’s more rough hewn witch gowns and most dazzling of all, the Ozmopolitan citizens adorned in gravity defying wigs and peplums that evoke the imagery of an entirely retro version of the 21st century. Working perfectly in tandem is makeup designer Joe Dulude II, whose Elphaba makeup may leave the actresses stained green for days on end, but under the stage lights of Kenneth Posner look absolutely natural and breathtaking as she goes from a fresh-faced emerald green girl, to the sharply contoured and world-worn Wicked Witch.
The show’s messaging about discrimination and empathy through looking at villains and scapegoats as victims of circumstance could not be playing in South Florida at a more important time. As mob violence is stoked by the flames of politicians ramping up campaigns against marginalized communities, the subplot of Doctor Dillamond being silenced by the Wizard rings so true today. Even as Glinda scoffs at the professor for teaching the origins of why animal people were subjugated, saying “I don’t see why you can’t just teach us history instead of always harping on the past,” there’s an uncomfortable laugh from the audience that has such a kernel of truth. Inevitably, the show is a product of its time in 2004, but even Bush-era sentiments about utilizing the education system to sway the opinions of the youth towards regressive values can feel quite relevant to 2023.
“Wicked” is purely bewitching Broadway musical theater at its finest. A dazzling show that spends its over two hour run time with a heartfelt tale of empathy, acceptance and seeing the world for what it truly is. With powerhouse performances, timeless comedy and absolutely breathtaking visual effects, the show is nothing short of a mastery of the craft. “Wicked” runs at the Adrienne Arsht Center now until March 5 with tickets available here.