Theater Review: Why Wicked Has Staying Power (Particularly With the Tweens)

At 10 years old, Wicked is quickly approaching the median age of its target audience. The packed crowd at the Music Hall at Fair Park Thursday night certainly felt like it was seventy-five percent tween girls (with a few adults in full Elphaba garb thrown in), but age and gender seem not to matter when it comes to the record-breaking musical. On its fourth trip through Dallas, Wicked still casts a spell over its audience.

As a footnote in musical theater history, Wicked is known for many things: it marked Stephen Schwartz’s major stage composing comeback, made household names of original stars Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, and famously lost the 2004 best musical Tony Award to Avenue Q. It also turned the screen-to-stage adaptation trend on its head, using the first book in Gregory Maguire’s series of revisionist Oz tales as its basis, supplemented by our near ubiquitous familiarity with the film version of The Wizard of Oz. By offering a “behind the scenes” look at a pre-Dorothy Emerald City, Maguire, Schwartz, librettist Winnie Holzman, and director Joe Mantello wisely capitalized on our deep well of nostalgia for all things Oz.

This pre-established knowledge base allows for some hilarious in-jokes as two young women—one blond and bubbly, the other green-skinned and prickly—are thrown together as roommates at Shiz University. We may think we recognize them as the simpering Glinda the Good and cackling Wicked Witch of the West, but for most of the show they are simply Galinda and Elphaba, two girls navigating the tricky waters of friendship, gossip, boys, sorcery, animal abuse, and corrupt government—you know, typical adolescent stuff.

Dee Roscioli’s deadpan delivery as Elphaba is the perfect foil to Jenn Gambatese’s bouncy effervescence as Glinda, and both bravely play with their vocal inflections rather than straight-up copy the now-revered cast recording. Besides showing off some gorgeous pipes, these actresses also prove they know how to milk a moment. As side note: Beginning on April 30, Alison Luff will replace Roscioli as Elphaba.

Eugene Lee’s intricately detailed sets, Susan Hilferty’s whimsically off-kilter costumes, and Tom Watson’s fanciful wigs still provoke gasps from the crowd, and Kenneth Posner’s fantastic lighting effects—always a personal favorite—ratchet up the drama for the witches, animals, and denizens of Oz. It’s nearly impossibly to imagine the songs “Defying Gravity” or “No Good Deed,” already musical stand-outs, delivering quite the one-two punch they do without the creative team’s support.

It’s reassuring to know that a decade in, this show is not only holding up, it’s still improving. It also shows no signs of slowing down. Don’t be surprised if we receive many more visits from Wicked in the future, but for now it’s worth braving the crowds to experience this current production’s particular brand of magic.

Photo: Joan Marcus