The first thing a newcomer to the “Wicked” phenomenon will notice is that this production has a great “eye” – a rich visual style, all gears, cogs, clock-faces and Emerald City glow.
And then, as the story unfolds, you’ll find that “Wicked” also possesses – unlike certain Oz denizens – a heart and a brain.
A brain, because this “Wizard of Oz” spin-off has a funny, first-rate script by Winnie Holzman (“My So-Called Life”) that brilliantly distills Gregory Maguire’s novel to its essence. It’s the story of the fraught love-hate relationship between Elphaba and Glinda (the Wicked One and the Good One, respectively). They’re more than just Oz witches; they’re universal archetypes, familiar to everyone over age 8.
Heart, because Holzman and composer Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Pippin”) make us sympathize deeply with Elphaba – yeah, we’re on the side of the Wicked One. The last thing I expected from “Wicked” was to be moved emotionally by the plight of a green-skinned witch on a broom. But that’s what happened.
This is all delivered nearly flawlessly by a tremendously talented cast, led by Anne Brummel as Elphaba and Natalie Daradich as Glinda (or Galinda – the two spellings are actually a plot point).
“Wicked” has a rich cast of characters, ranging from talking goats to flying monkeys to surprisingly tall Munchkins. There’s a side-plot, lifted from the novel, about animal liberation. There are many, many nods to the great 1939 film, some of them sly, including a sardonic “I’m melting” reference, and some of which will take you by surprise.
Yet the “Wicked” creative team never lost sight of the key arc of the story, which goes like this: Elphaba, the green-skinned outcast, and Glinda, the blond popular girl, are thrown together at school. They loathe each other. I mean, really loooathe each other. Then, slowly, they learn to understand each other. A deep friendship forms. That friendship is stretched and broken by events. But even in the darkest times, that bond never completely dies.
It’s no coincidence that the most entertaining musical number is “Popular,” in which Glinda tries to do a makeover of Elphaba. Daradich, an expert comic actress, flounces around the stage, tossing her blond locks, flinging herself petulantly on the bed and cooing adoringly at her own face in the mirror.
Brummel is equally funny and charming as she tries gamely to learn the art of feminine lock-tossing. This is an impressive acting feat, since her character is not naturally funny and charming. Elphaba is brilliant and talented – yet also glum and resentful over the fact that in Oz, as in our own world, happiness is easier to achieve by the shallow and superficial.
Ultimately, Brummel delivers the show’s most emotional moments, the most amazing of which is the first-act closer, “Defying Gravity.” It’s a stirring anthem of empowerment, conveyed through Brummel’s strong, controlled voice and through some astonishing lighting and technical legerdemain. I won’t give it away except to say you’ll be left with a bright and uplifting image at intermission.
The design team deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the success of this show. Even before it starts, your eyes can feast on the curtain-sized map of Oz and the giant dragon looming over the proscenium. Once the show starts, you’ll see a dizzying array of sets, most of which share a common circular theme. There are many toothed gears, a number of gigantic clock-faces, enormous round windows and immense green-lit Emerald City arches.
The costumes owe a debt to the movie, yet they are endlessly imaginative. Think “Harry Potter” crossed with “Alice in Wonderland.”
And finally, this show delivers some true surprises at the end, the kind that will make you ponder what really happened at the end of that 1939 movie. It’s a complete package of comedy, song, creativity, magic and emotion.
No wonder this show will draw somewhere around 40,000 people over its two-week Spokane run. My guess is that the majority of those 40,000 people will file out of the INB Performing Arts Center feeling the way I did: satisfied, happy and yes, even a little bit uplifted.