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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Something ‘Wicked’ this way returns: Beloved musical will defy gravity once again through March 27 at First Interstate Center

We all know the Wicked Witch of the West. You know, the scary-looking, gravely voiced crone famous for her “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too,” from the classic 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.” But there’s more to the story.

“Wicked,” the hit Broadway musical making its third visit to Spokane, tells the story of Oz before Dorothy and Toto caught a ride on a tornado and landed in Munchkinland. Based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, “Wicked” is centered on the future wicked witch Elphaba, a young woman who has a curious mind and a natural affinity for sorcery.

While at school, the nerdy Elphaba forms a difficult friendship with the beautiful and popular Galinda – later Glinda, the Good Witch of the South – as she seeks to find her place in the world that is changing all around her.

For Talia Suskauer, the actress playing Elphaba on the current U.S. tour, what makes Elphaba so appealing to portray lies in the fact that she is so well-known in pop culture. Audiences have a perception of her from at least one angle.

“Right from the get-go, she becomes fascinating to the audience because we think we know her, but we very quickly realize, from the second she runs down stage, and the audience is hit with her, they’re hit with a smiling, young, fresh-faced, hopeful college student,” Suskauer said. “And immediately they’re like, ‘Wait, who is this?’ She’s instantly loveable, and that messes with people’s psyche a little bit.”

The show gets at bigger themes, too, as we watch as this person “devolves, or evolves depending on how you look at it, into the person who all know as the Wicked Witch of the West,” Suskauer said. Maybe, she added, audiences can develop a different perception of what is good and what is wicked “and how someone comes to having that label thrust on to them.”

She added, “She’s just incredibly relatable. She’s weird, she’s quirky, she’s fiery, she stands up for what she believes in, she’s a total goofball, and I think she’s very loveable. I think anyone who comes to the show can relate to her. That’s the goal.”

The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, debuted on Broadway in 2003, with Idina Menzel as Elphaba (in a Tony-winning performance) and Kristin Chenoweth as Galinda. The show was a huge hit, earning 10 Tony nominations and sparking several international productions. In less than 13 years, it earned $1 billion in revenue.

“Wicked” is making its third appearance in Spokane starting next Wednesday. The original cast recording is among the bestselling Broadway albums in history and features one of the best songs to come out of Broadway in the past 20 years. Long before Menzel was urging us to “Let It Go,” she was thrilling audiences by “Defying Gravity” – a song TimeOut New York called “the first great 21st century power ballad on Broadway.”

Even if people have never seen the show, Suskauer said, they’ve likely heard that song, and when the opening chords play, sometimes the audience is so quiet, and other times there’s an audible gasp of excitement.

“I saw the show when I was a kid with my mom and my sister, and I remember seeing ‘Defying Gravity’ for the first time and seeing this girl go up in the air, and I’d never seen anything like that,” Suskauer said. “It literally is breathtaking. They’ve created a breathtaking spectacle on the stage.

“Not only is the song so compelling because it is about a woman embracing her own uniqueness and strength and really coming in to her power … this song is healing for people, and I do not take it lightly. To be able sing it every night, it is an honor.

“Also, getting to fly every night, it’s so cool. It’s as cool as people think it would be.” The tour cast is joined by two lauded Broadway veterans, Cleavant Derricks as the Wizard and Clifton Davis as Dr. Dillamond.

Davis had starring roles in the sitcoms “That’s My Mama” and “Amen” and recurring roles on “Madam Secretary” and “Godfather of Harlem.” His film credits include Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” and Bill Duke’s “Cover.” On Broadway, he was a Tony nominee in 1972 for the rock musical adaptation of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and he originated the role of the Sultan in “Disney’s Aladdin” in 2014. He also wrote the song “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which the Jackson 5 took to No. 2 on the charts in 1971.

Derricks won a Tony in 1982 for his performance as James “Thunder” Early in “Dreamgirls,” and he was nominated again in 1986 for “Big Deal.” He also starred in the late 1900s series “Sliders” and appeared in the films “Moscow on the Hudson,” “The Slugger’s Wife” and “Carnival of Souls.”

For Suskauer, getting to work with actors such as these is something she appreciates and never forgets.

“There’s a scene just the three of us, me, Cleavant and Clifton, and sometimes I will kind of zoom out and think to myself, ‘You are onstage with two Broadway legends, and TV legends and legends of American culture,’ ” she said. “And it never gets old for me. I learn from them every day.

“Being onstage with Cleavant as he sings ‘Wonderful,’ it’s watching a master at work. And Clifton, I’ve never heard the dialogue read so beautifully. He treats Dr. Dillamond as a Shakespearean character, and every word is so clear, and it’s a masterclass. It’s a complete honor to watch these men at work.”

Suskauer has been with the show since September 2019 and was happy to return to the road once performances resumed after the COVID-19 pause.

“It’s been amazing. There was a time when we didn’t think we’d be able to perform again,” she said. “I feel very lucky that I was brought back to finish the job.”

While the cast and crew have been back to work since August, Suskauer said, “We still have people coming to every show, and it’s their first show in two years. We have a very important job to do, bringing theater to people around the country.”