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Review: ‘Wicked’ brings humor, heart and spectacle to an age-old tale

UPDATED: Sat., March 12, 2022

There is something rather miraculous about “Wicked.” It has eye-popping costumes and a rich, visual setting. The music is earworm worthy, and the show has an interesting hook – telling the story of Oz before Dorothy and her little dog, too, dropped in.

But it’s more than flash and glitz and people flying about. “Wicked” has loads of humor and heart and a message of acceptance. It also has something to say about authoritarianism and the power of propaganda to warp reality – topics that feel shocking relevant these days.

“Wicked,” which opened on Broadway in 2003, is based on a 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire. It tells the story of Elphaba, who is the daughter of the governor of Munchkinland and is born with a decidedly unexpected green hue. She is ostracized by her father, who shows his preference for her younger sister, Nessarose, who uses a wheelchair.

The two are sent to Shiz University – Nessarose because her father expects great things and Elphaba to help her sister. Once there, Elphaba’s sorcery skills draw the attention of Madame Morrible, and Elphaba befriends her history professor, Dr. Dillamond, a talking goat. (Yes, in this version of Oz, animals talk, but not necessarily freely.) She clashes with her new roommate, the blond, pretty, rich and popular Glinda.

Glinda and Elphaba soon form a real friendship that survives the arrival of Fiyero, a charming and handsome Winkie prince. When Elphaba’s powers come to the attention of the Wizard, and when they clash over the rights of animals, her world shifts, as do her relationships.

As Glinda puts it in the show, “Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon on them?” In the case of Elphaba, the answer is pretty obvious. The core of the story is Elphaba and Galinda – later shortened to Glinda – and as such, the casting of these two roles is critical. Fortunately, the powers behind the North American tour that opened in Spokane on Wednesday got it right.

As Elphaba, Talia Suskauer brings an intriguing combination of awkwardness and determination to the future Wicked Witch of the West. We empathize with her because we can see she is kind and loveable. And Suskauer has a lovely voice, too, fully on display whether she’s singing the lovely first-act number “I’m Not That Girl” or the soaring anthem “Defying Gravity.”

As Glinda, Allison Bailey has the showy part. Sure, she plays the ditzy (but not really dumb) blonde, but Bailey shows that she is a deft comic. Aside from possessing a pretty soprano voice, Bailey can make even Glinda’s really awkward dance moves look hilarious, and her timing is impeccable when Glinda drops her patented one-liners.

Even better, Suskauer and Bailey sound good together, whether it be in the crowd-pleasing “Popular” or the lovely “For Good” number near the end of the show.

As Fiyero, Jordan Litz is completely charming. His character starts off as a shallow playboy, but he soon finds himself drawn to Elphaba’s cause. His duet with Suskauer in “As Long As You’re Mine” is sublime.

This tour of “Wicked” also includes a trio of veteran performers who bring a deep pool of talent to the stage.

Lisa Howard, who plays Madame Morrible, won a Drama Desk Award as a cast member of the 2005 Broadway production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and her Broadway credits include “Escape to Margaritaville,” “9-to-5” and “It Should Have Been You.” Madame Morrible is, well, horrible, and Howard does an excellent job of making the audience hate her. As the Wizard’s propaganda minister, she ruthlessly takes after her former protégé. Howard is a real presence onstage who is utterly watchable.

In the small but pivotal role of Dr. Dillamond, Clifton Davis is marvelous. The veteran TV actor, familiar from his work on “Amen,” “Billions,” “Madam Secretary,” “Godfather of Harlem” and dozen of other shows, was a Tony nominee in 1972 for “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” He also originated the role of Sultan in the Broadway production of Disney’s “Aladdin” in 2014. He may be buried under a goat headdress, but Davis lets his humanity shine, especially in his duet with Elphaba, “Something Bad.” It’s a lovely performance.

Then there’s the Wizard of Oz. Cleavant Derricks, beloved by fans of the 1990s sci-fi series “Sliders” for his work as Rembrandt Brown, won a Tony Award for his portrayal of James “Thunder” Early in the 1981 production of “Dreamgirls.” Derricks’ Wizard is a man out of place – and he knows it. His may have good intentions about bringing order to Oz, but his consequences are profound.

And oh man, that voice. His two songs – “Sentimental Man” and “Wonderful,” a duet with Suskauer – are simply marvelous. His rich baritone fills the auditorium, and it’s a treat to sit in the audience and take it all in.

Actually, all of “Wicked” is a treat. There are reasons why this nearly 20-year-old show remains so popular. There are fun callbacks to the iconic 1939 movie without going overboard. And, most importantly, “Wicked” continues to hit all the right notes while telling a story that resonates with just about everyone.

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