REVIEW: Wicked – The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz (Musical)

Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz (Musical)
Touring version, 3/27/2010, 8 PM performance
Landmark Theater, Richmond, Virginia USA

Background on my perspective

Before I review Wicked, I am going to tell you up front that I am not a regular patron of musical theater (or the other kind, either). Including Wicked, I have seen exactly three professional musicals in my life – the other two being Annie and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, both of which, like Wicked, have movie connections. Annie and Beauty and the Beast were terrific, by the way.

I also should note that I am a fan of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz movie. Maybe not an uber-fan like I am of Elvis, Star Trek, and Star Wars, but a fan nonetheless. After all, The Wizard of Oz was the Star Wars of its time. Or, shall I say, more appropriately, that Star Wars was The Wizard of Oz of its time.

Though they are on my “some day” list, I have not read L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels. Therefore, I approached Wicked mostly as a fan of The Wizard of Oz movie as well as a fan of great storytelling in any form.

As its subtitle so rightly explains, Wicked is “the untold story of the witches of Oz,” namely Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. “Elphaba” was never named in the movie and her name here is actually a tribute to Oz creator L. Frank Baum . . . L F B . . . eL Fa Ba . . . Elphaba . . . get it?

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in 1939's The Wizard of OzFor the comic book fans among us, Wicked amounts to an origins story about the Wicked Witch of the West. Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of this witch is so perfect, so frightening in the 1939 movie that I do not think I was able to watch The Wizard of Oz in its entirety until I was 12-years-old.

I became even better acquainted with the film when my oldest niece, about 3-years-old at the time, made me watch it with her two or three times a day on video when I was around 16. The witch never seemed to bother her too much, but, hey, I am nothing if not a scaredy pants.

The review

I had only heard great things about Wicked, so I was excited about seeing what people had told me was a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.

Unfortunately, the whole thing started off wrong for me and never really recovered from there. Glinda is talking to Oz citizens in the aftermath of the Wicked Witch’s death by water (near the conclusion of The Wizard of Oz).

This Glinda is not quite the one remembered from The Wizard of Oz, though. Gone is the wise, strong woman of that movie. She is replaced by a Clueless/Legally Blonde style character, no doubt in an effort to appeal to modern audiences. While I enjoyed the performances of Alicia Silverstone and Reese Witherspoon in those movies as much as the next guy, that is not how Glinda should be portrayed. Besides, Glinda was a redhead!

Someone asks Glinda if it is true that she and the Wicked Witch of the West (Elphaba) were once friends, which sets up the flashbacks that comprise the core of the musical.

Did I tell you this was an origins story? That is right, and I meant it, too. Wicked stops just short of showing Elphaba’s conception.

The “secret” identity of one of her parents is made so painfully obvious in this early scene that the shocked gasps of other audience members near the end of the musical during an obligatory reveal in the style of The Empire Strikes Back gave me one of my few real laughs of the entire evening.

Maybe I have just watched too many prequels, sequels, and what have you in my life and can smell these “ever-so-clever” plot twists coming from miles away.

Much of the story takes place at a boarding school, where Galinda (as she is known back then) and Elphaba meet up and eventually become mismatched friends of a sort. Elphaba is a moody outsider because of her green skin and magical powers, while Galinda is the quintessential popular girl. Full of perk, she has everything she wants except magical powers (like the Scarecrow, though, what she really needs is a brain).

I will not get too much into a “Save the Animals” sub-plot except to say that the handiwork of My So Called Life creator Winnie Holzman (who wrote the non-musical portions of the script) is obvious throughout. Sure, this outcast teacher who befriends and inspires an outcast student may happen to be a Goat, while the student may happen to be a witch, but it is still pretty much the same plot used a couple of times in her short-lived but memorable TV series. Somehow, what worked at Liberty High School does not quite fit in Oz.

Meanwhile, the dubious origins of various other famous Oz characters are ruined . . . er . . . revealed – all of which take away from these beloved characters through their attempted cleverness rather than adding any real depth.

While most vocal performances are strong, the songs themselves (with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) pale in comparison to those in The Wizard of Oz.

For those who say it is not fair to compare them to such classic tunes, I disagree. If you are going to play in the land of Oz, then you had better be ready for these kinds of comparisons. The music in Wicked is simply not memorable – but in this case, that is actually a good thing.

Cutesy but meaningless references to the movie are sprinkled throughout. Name three items in a row (think “Lions and tigers and bears”) and you get the expected “Oh my!” payoff right on cue. “There’s no place like home,” notes Elphaba at one point. Har-de-har.

Most of Wicked felt like a very good high school level production, but nothing more. A comic “cat fight” between Glinda and Elphaba is particularly awful (complete with weapon-like twirling of broomstick and magic wand). The audience was roaring with laughter and loved it, though.

I guess I so disliked the premise that many of the other jokes also fell flat for me. I imagine this is how people who think Star Wars is “okay” feel when they attend the opening night of one of those films – a kind of disconnect from the rest of the audience who seem “in” on the greatness of something that you just cannot see.

While I will not get into details, the conclusion of Wicked so trashes the story told in The Wizard of Oz that I was actually angry about it. How could they do this? And how could people love it so?

In the end, I just did not get Wicked. It never spoke to me. As a stand-alone musical, I would give it a 5 out of 10. However, within the context of The Wizard of Oz, I can only rate Wicked a 2 out of 10.

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Considering how I was definitely the exception in the audience as far as my reaction to Wicked (odds are, you will like it, even though I did did not), I thought it only fair to include a link to a positive review. This is a review of the Australian production, and it is much better and creative than my review. It is well worth checking out, for another perspective: An Illustrated Review of Wicked.