'Wicked' good

A spellbinding witches' tale at PPAC
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 31, 2013

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HEART TO HEART Beck and Luff. [Photos by Tristam Kenton and Joan Marcus]

It’s not easy being green, but it’s no walk in the park being mean either. Those are the lessons of the wildly popular musical Wicked, on tour at the Providence Performing Arts Center in an extended run through January 12. Subtitled “The Untold Story of The Witches of Oz,” the tale has been seen by more than 13 million theatergoers from New York to Japan. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, the book is by Winnie Holzman, and it was directed by Joe Mantello.

No Judy Garland look-alike appears, but occasional details from the movie emerge in the background, such as a glimpse of a yellow brick road and, in silhouette toward the end, a bucket of water melting the wicked witch, Elphaba (Alison Luff). (Don’t worry, in this telling that was faked, so she’s fine.)

This backstory to The Wizard of Oz takes place in a land of wand-waving and spell-casting that Harry Potter would enjoy. Children can be cruel, so we’d expect them to give Elphaba a hard time when she arrives at Shiz University, but her father has apparently been crueler, making clear that her only purpose in life is to take care of her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Jaime Rosenstein).

Technical spectacle is required for such a Broadway smash, from the flying monkeys to the animated Cessna-sized dragon above the proscenium arch in Eugene Lee’s scenic design, complete with huge enmeshing backdrop gears. But all that’s just for decoration, since the heart of the show is the relationship between the two who start out as roommates and end up as the wicked witch and the good witch, Galinda (Gina Beck).

Luff is captivating as Elphaba, comfortably conveying her sense of humor, which keeps her from becoming pathetic. But it’s Beck’s Galinda who is the real delight, a bubbly and bubble-headed blonde confident of the world’s adoration — “Something is wrong: I didn’t get my way,” she says at one point, then faints. Galinda starts out as a typical mean girl at school, but she becomes a good friend to Elphaba when occasion arises. (Eventually she changes her name to the “Glinda” we know.) At the beginning she is given a profound thematic question to ask: “Why do people become wicked?”

Wicked could have attained mythic resonance if that question had been taken seriously, but entertainment is all the payoff necessary here, so the answer is simple: if you want to see someone turn wicked, mistreat them and then allow them to obtain power. In this instance, Elphaba eventually discovers she is the only one who can read the spells in an ancient text and put them into action. Not only is the supposedly great and powerful Wizard (John Davidson) who is behind the enormous frightening mechanical mask not wonderful, he doesn’t have any magical powers. But you knew that from the movie.

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