After more than 13 years on Broadway, and three previous pit stops in Buffalo, the mega-hit musical “Wicked” has returned to Shea’s Performing Arts Center. The national tour touched down Tuesday night for a three-week stay through June 4. I’m happy to say it has never looked better.
It’s hard to maintain high standards after so many years. “Wicked” has joined the ranks of other perennial touring favorites that just won’t go away. They begin to show their age after the third or fourth visit. I remember seeing the millionth national tour of “Cats” once; I was begging for catnip at intermission.
This production does as fine a job as it can with the source material, which remains a pop culture phenomenon. "Wicked" is a pop musical, through and through. Little girls, and a few little boys, were seen sprinting to the marquee before the show started. I saw a couple of young women sprinkle imaginary fairy dust over the lobby’s grand balcony as we left. It has a way with the youth.
I’ve always thought of “Wicked” as the illegitimate love child of “Legally Blonde” and “Shrek,” where shameless entertainment and social politics co-exist in a happy terrarium of miniature harmony. The show teaches valuable lessons about justice and representation, and warns against fear-mongering and political apathy. References to current headlines will not go unnoticed, either. (You just can’t escape that in the theater these days.)
Stephen Schwartz’s melodramatic score is still youthful but now sounds dated, even by 2003’s standards, when the show debuted. (If you listen closely and squint a little, you can hear the theme song to “Doogie Howser, M.D.”) Vocal arrangements do nothing to help its interpreters. Schwartz keeps his melodies in the nose and throat, which makes for some awesome power notes but lousy storytelling. It helps if you know the score by heart beforehand.
A weak sound mix added to the difficulty at Thursday night’s performance. What should sound powerful and full-bodied sounded thin and hesitant, as if a full-scale Broadway musical were being performed across the hall. Leads Jessica Vosk, as wicked Elphaba, and Ginna Claire Mason, as Glinda the Good, power through with articulate, impassioned voices but not a drop of supportive power. (Emily Schultheis plays Elphaba from May 23 to 28.) The 14-member pit orchestra, led by Dan Micciche, received little help from the sound board.
Audio issues aside, everything else is in running order. Vosk and Mason lead a superb cast that includes knockout performances from Tony Award nominees Isabel Keating as Madame Morrible and Robin de Jesús as Boq. Keating gives a master class in both maternal hospitality and passive-aggressive leadership skills.
Vosk’s take on the misunderstood green heroine Elphaba is a breath of fresh air, infusing the freedom-fighter with a staunch political drive that feels properly disgruntled. Mason, as the shrewdly Southern Glinda, is a gentler, softer bombshell than most in the part. Both roles require a keen balance of charity and self-pride, innocence and pre-meditation, good and evil; each walks these lines effortlessly, which makes our visits with them even more engaging.
No matter if you’re opening a show, closing a show, or still running a show in its second decade, the real magic is always in the details. This “Wicked” cast knows just what they’re doing.
★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
Musical by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday through June 4. Tickets are $39 to $149 through the Shea's box office, via sheas.org or by calling 800-745-3000.