Before I begin, let me preface this by saying that Wicked is perhaps my favorite show. It is the first professional performance I remember seeing in its entirety, and it will always hold a special place in my memories. Needless to say, I had high hopes for director Joe Mantello’s touring production when it flew into the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in Baltimore.
Originally created by Stephen Schwartz (Children of Eden, Pippin), the musical is touted for telling the untold story of the witches of Oz. The original 2003 Broadway production featured Tony-winners Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth (Elphaba and Glinda respectively), who have since set the bar for all those who attempt to fill their ruby slippers.
At first, our Glinda (Allison Bailey) and Elphaba (Talia Suskauer) seem to have no trouble, and easily take on arguably some of the most demanding roles in Broadway history. As Bailey begins her graceful bubble decent during the booming opening notes of “No One Mourns the Wicked,” she has all of the elegance one would expect of the Good Witch of the North, serving as a later contrast to Suskauer’s gawky (albeit intentional) Elphaba clomp. Together, they create a blend of humor and energy as their unadulterated loathing culminates in a toe-tapping, laugh inducing musical number full of perfect harmonies (“What is this Feeling?”).
Suskauer gets her first shining moment during “The Wizard and I.” A little bit awkward with a whole lot of confidence, she puts her own spin on that final oomph of a note. As the show progresses, Suskauer continues to come into her own with the character, creating her own riff patterns during some of her character’s most critical moments, including the end of “Defying Gravity.”
As the school lives of Elphaba and Glinda unfold, we finally get to meet our dashing hero in Fiyero (Curt Hansen). With his tousled hair, tight pants and bad boy sort of ease, Hansen is every bit the part. Until he opens his mouth. Instead of smooth and sexy notes to match that rich boy charm, Hansen was squeaky and whiny, immediately shattering any illusion of irresistibility he created when he stepped on stage. This sort of nasally performance continues throughout the remainder of the show, particularly during the musical number “As Long as You’re Mine.” In what is supposed to be an emotional and sexually charged moment between Elphaba and Fiyero, Suskauer carries the number on her own, filling the theater with deep, sexy notes full of lust and longing.
It is worth taking a moment here to appreciate some of the production’s supporting characters. DJ Plunkett (Boq) and Amanda Fallon Smith (Nessarose) both burst with talent, and their small exchanges during “Dancing Through Life” add another layer of energy to the already upbeat (and beautifully choreographed) musical number and the swankified Ozdust Ballroom. It is a travesty that they are not given more stage time together beyond their Act II number “The Wicked Witch of the East,” which serves as a dark and sinister contrast to their lovable and upbeat personalities from the beginning of the show.
The rest of Act 1 is a flurry of musical numbers. Unfortunately, the audio mix seemed off for most of it. It was often hard to hear the actors over the music and echo of the chorus in the background. Bailey was the most frequent victim, and her signature Glinda high notes frequently dropped off just as you expect them to be loud and strong, ringing through the theater. To her credit, it is unclear if it was a fault of her own, or if it truly was an error in the audio quality. Suskauer faced her own bit of audio struggles, and often lacked the power expected from such a character in her later musical numbers.
The confidence Suskauer had during her final notes of “The Wizard and I” quickly waned until the end of the Act 1 finale, “Defying Gravity.” It was here that she earned her pointed black hat and magic broom, floating high above the stage like a green beacon of hope. Unfortunately, this momentum did not make a reappearance again until the end of Act II in her number “No Good Deed.” This underrated rock ballad proved to be the best song in the show as Suskauer finally belted out her desperation in bone-chilling notes, achieving that Elphaba flair.
What the actors lacked in singing (or proper audio quality), they made up for in acting. Glinda and Elphaba’s back and forth during “Popular” is the peak of musical theater comedy. Bailey’s effortless “toss, toss” is as bouncy as the curls on her head and frills on her bright pink dress. When placed side by side with Suskauer’s awkward shlump and flail-like attempts at dancing, the effect is a wonderfully cheesy but endearingly hopeful blossom of friendship.
In a show full of magic and witches, it would be remiss not to mention the technical team that makes it possible. Most notable is the shift that occurs during the musical number “One Short Day.” Although it serves as a transition to the next plot point in the story, “One Short Day” marks a transition in the technical elements of the production as well.
It is here that we see Oz, the Emerald City and the Ozians in all their sparkly glory, thanks to Susan Hilferty’s stunning costumes. An endless parade of bright green, the energy changes as fun and creativity are let loose on the stage. Costumes, footwear, hats and accessories took on a new meaning, all leading up to the impressive mechanism that is the Wizard’s floating head and Cleavant Derricks’ (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) smooth voice and cocky strut.
Overall, the enthusiasm that exudes from this production is palpable. This high energy cast has somehow managed to take a well-loved and familiar production in a slightly new direction without straying too far from it’s original integrity.
Don’t miss your chance to see Wicked at the Hippodrome now through March 8, 2020, or you’ll find yourself green with envy!