Revival of ‘Wicked’ Delivers Spectacular Stagecraft

Revival of 'Wicked' is a spectacular divertissement — in every sense of the word spectacular. Particularly the stagecraft.

Has it really been 10 years since I first saw Wicked in its pre-Broadway run in San Francisco?


Back when, I thought the show was as deep as a pool that had been drained yet as light and wondrous as an exquisite soufflé.

Recently I went to opening night of its latest incarnation, at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco.

The show, which has grossed more than $500 million over the last decade on the Great White Way, where it’s still financially healthy, was severely restructured before it originally opened in New York.

And it’s been retailored a bit since.

Now, unless you’re in the mood for a dose of heavy Shakespeare or Kafka or perhaps an experimental John Cage-like version of Les Miz, you should find this a spectacular divertissement — in every sense of the word spectacular.

The glitz-laden stagecraft — including gigantic sets with their zillion lights ablaze and guaranteeing to keep PG&E in the black for a long time — will keep you, well, spellbound.

And you’re likely to find the sumptuous, ruffled costumes equally stunning.

Expect total visual and vocal candy.

That having been said, the musical comedy’s still as deep as a pool that had been drained yet as light and wondrous as an exquisite soufflé.

The lead role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, which was padded exponentially since the show’s inception, lies now in the green makeup and extremely capable throat and of Dee Roscioli, a Broadway luminary who’s portrayed Elphaba more than 1,000 times.

The clout of her pipes is amazing to behold.

On opening night, the role of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, was sung by Cassie Okenka, arguably the most skilled understudy since Barbra Streisand exploded onstage in Funny Girl.

Replacing the flu-ravaged Patti Murin, Okenka was no slouch in the comedy department, either.

Her enchanting scratchy voice is akin to that of Kristin Chenoweth (who’d blossomed here in the pre-Broadway version and then went to New York wearing full star skin), and her outrageously manic body movements kept the entertainment moving as fast and exciting as magical white river rapids.

The fantasy plotline, a prequel/sequel to The Wizard of Oz, hasn’t changed: Elphaba and Glinda are mismatched roommates and schoolyard best friends. They become rivals. They grow and overcome their differences.

Along the way, Wicked, in hit-and-run fashion, digs into the subjects of popularity, power and prejudice.

Think about it.

Think, too, about The Emerald City and Dorothy’s shiny red slippers, as well as the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.

Then, perhaps, think about the Odd Couple meeting The Lord of the Rings.

Opening night of the revival, Kevin McMahon’s thinking was probably elsewhere — on how to suitably step in for the flu-ish Tom McGowan as the wizard.

He needn’t have worried: He was strong.

Strong support also came via the performances of Kim Zimmer as lower-level villainess Madame Morrible; Demaree Hill as Nessarose, Elphaba’s disabled younger sister; Clifton Davis as a goat/scapegoat/professor, Dr. Dillamond; and Cliffton Hall as Fiyero, Glinda’s intended who’d rather be with Elphaba.

But the two-hour, 25-minute production did have a few weak spots.

Words sung in unison by the chorus were sometimes muffled to the point of being indecipherable. Much of the choreography seemed like works in progress, with the flying monkeys flailing wildly and the rest of the ensemble twirling and kicking with bland precision. Superficiality prevailed.

And Act I felt a trifle long at an hour and a half.

Highlights were not difficult to ascertain, though. They included the first act finale, “Defying Gravity,” which ended with breathtaking special effects; several duet riffs by the two witches; and the lone memorable Stephen Schwartz tune, “Popular.”

All in all, hilarity was almost ubiquitous in the audience. Simple lines like “Something’s wrong — I didn’t get my way” evoked big laughs.

Belted-out songs, meanwhile, drew big applause and boisterous cheers — even if no one could remember the words or melodies five minutes after leaving the theater.

You might pay no-never-mind to that, however, since Wicked has more pleasurable big-production numbers per square inch, more buoyance per minute, than any show in recent memory.

Versions were previously staged in San Francisco — in addition to the initial 2003 run — in 2005 and 2010. In each of them, the Glinda character came and went in an ostentatious bubble, a quick prompt to the show’s bubbly mien.

And with all that effervescence, it was — and is — virtually impossible for anyone who loves flamboyant theatricality to dislike this variation on a familiar theme.

Wicked runs at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco, through Feb. 17. Night performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Matinees, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $50 to $275 (subject to change). Information: (888) 746-1799 or shnsf.com.

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