Returning to DC for the first time since 2005, Wicked is entertaining the nation’s capital this summer. Running from June 15th to August 21st at the Kennedy Center Opera House to nearly sold-out crowds, the show remains as popular as ever. And even for a first timer to the play, it’s not hard to understand why. The story of the witches of Oz – Elphaba and Glinda – before Dorothy drops into Munchkinland, Wicked is a thought-provoking and funny exploration of life, goodness, evil and even love.
As a child growing up in the 70’s, The Wizard of Oz was a staple in my house. An annual TV event that stopped all playing and saw not just me, but my two older sisters (and younger brother to boot) quiet and happy for 2 hours as we let ourselves be whisked down the yellow brick road with Dorothy and her merry companions. And while I knew the premise of Wicked before seeing the show, I was not prepared for the emotional depth of story.
Bursting onto the stage with the gloriously rousing “No One Mourns The Wicked,” we meet the citizens of Oz celebrating the death of the perhaps the world’s best known villain, The Wicked Witch of the West. And floating down out of the sky in a shimmering burst of bubbles is none other than the perkiest witch in the world – Glinda the Good. And just like that, in a few short moments, Wicked has drawn you into the story of these two women well before Dorothy enters the picture, giving us an intimate snapshot into what created the characters we love and up until this moment, thought we knew.
Meeting for the first time, Elphaba and Glinda are not unlike young girls everywhere. Glinda, beautiful and popular, is a friend to everyone, good at everything and uncertain of nothing. In contrast, Elphaba, with her stark green skin and wicked sharp wit is friends with no one, smarter than everyone, and certain of very little. Yet in spite of their initial loathing of each other, these two form the kind of friendship that transcends their differences and illuminates the depths only a true friendship explores, and only after a lot of effort, love and even hardship.
Winner of 35 awards, including three Tonys and a Grammy (the score is sublime), Wicked is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, with music and lyrics written by Stephen Schwartz. The part of Elphaba is played, in fine voice, by Dee Roscioli (who has played the part on Broadway, as well as in Chicago and San Francisco); Glinda is played by Amanda Jane Cooper, although I saw Emily Ferranti, her understudy, and this duo was transcendent. Not only did I believe their unerring friendship, I wanted to be their friend. I wanted to reassure Elphaba that her green skin wasn’t the hindrance she thought it was, and point out to Glinda that no one likes a know-it-all. More than anything I wanted to walk the yellow brick road with these two determined young women and be in the presence of the Wizard (who does exist, by the way). New characters introduced in Wicked include Fiyero (Master of the Guard, and both Glinda’s and Elphaba’s love interest) and Nessarose – Elphaba’s younger sister who in the original story is personified as the Wicked Witch of the East, but who in Wicked, isn’t wicked at all. Well, not really. It’s been years since I’ve watched The Wizard of Oz, but this rendition is the grown-up version I didn’t know I wanted, and these characters are the answers to questions I didn’t realize I had.
As the Wicked story unfolds, we learn that Elphaba, with her green skin and sharp intellect is the overlooked and underappreciated older daughter of the Mayor of Oz. Sent to the Shiz School to be her sister Nessarose’s keeper, Elphaba is ostracized at every turn. Fellow students won’t interact with her, the headmistress doesn’t like her (until she realizes that Elphaba has amazing magical prowess), and Glinda seems to be present everywhere to do nothing but put her down. However, when chance forces the two girls to become roommates, the true faces of both are revealed, and an entirely new Oz emerges. In spite of her green façade, sensitive and kind Elphaba yearns to travel to the Emerald City and work with The Wizard of Oz. Glinda, even more insecure than Elphaba, also yearns to study the magical arts yet because of her over-reaching determination to be popular, is overlooked as a serious student by Madame Morrible and forced to ride another’s coattails for the first time in her life. It’s easy to see that in spite of these obstacles, a friendship will be forged, but what isn’t so easy to see is how much higher the curtain hiding Oz will lift. What’s behind the curtain is no child’s fairytale.
Full of masterful singing, a soaring musical score, and a cleverly written book, Wicked is the perfect evening out for families, couples, singles and everyone in-between. Although many of the remaining evening and weekend performances are sold out, good tickets are still available for purchase before the show closes on August 21st. Head over to www.kennedy-center.org and find your way into the magical, mysterious, wonderful world of Oz. I may not be a witch, but I think it’s safe to say that Wicked will cast its spell and you’ll be smiling for days after.
For more information, please visit the Kennedy Center website or call the box-office at: 202-467-4600 or toll-free at 800-444-1324. Tickets on sale for performances running now through August 21st, 2011.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus