Wicked tells which witch is which

Photo by Joan Marcus
Christina DiCicco is a comic gem as the bubbleheaded Galinda in "Wicked," now playing at the Ohio Theatre through July 8. But, like the other characters in this retelling of the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, there is more to her than meets the eye as she matures into the Good Witch Glinda.

You’ll never look at "The Wizard of Oz" in the same way again after you see the musical "Wicked."

That’s the warning my daughter, who saw the show in Cincinnati last year, issued to me before we attended the production now in Columbus at the Ohio Theatre through July 8.

And that’s the caveat I now extend to those who see this play that offers the "real" story behind the Wicked Witch of the West and other denizens of the land over the rainbow.

Watch out – no one in topsy-turvy Oz is as they seem. Like Stephen Sondheim’s "Into the Woods," this play portrays familiar characters and turns our preconceived notions on their heads.

Other perceptions will change, as well, about the ways heroes and villains are manipulated and manufactured and how our fears are exploited.

That’s the job of a great play – to get us thinking as well as to entertain.

And this musical has enough entertainment value to make many another show emerald green with envy.

The play, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, tells the backstory of the green-skinned Elphaba from birth to her rise and fall as the infamous Wicked Witch of the West.

Because of the color of her skin, her father rejects her.

Things aren’t much better at the university, where her bright mind makes her stand out as much as her day-glow complexion.

Even worse, the popular, and seemingly, bubbleheaded, Galinda ends up as her roommate, where they naturally clash – at first.

Elphaba learns that all is not well in Oz, as a favorite professor, who just happens to be a goat, explains how the brilliant animals have lost their ability – and their willingness – to speak.

There are a lot of ways that someone can be pressured into not speaking out, Doctor Dillamond explains.

The novice sorceress pins her hopes on meeting the wonderful wizard of Oz and convincing him to correct this injustice, but she is destined to be disillusioned in this quest.

The "official story" is not always the truth, the Wizard informs Elphaba.

The people where he comes from have something like that, the Wizard says. "It’s called history."

Elphaba’s courageous refusal to accept the new order sets her on a collision course with the powers that be, who turn the populace against her.

Galinda (who changes her name to the easier to pronounce Glinda) and a prince who is not as shallow as he pretends have choices of their own to make.

The heavier elements are buoyed by musical numbers such as "Popular" and "Defying Gravity" and the sparkle of the production.

There are enough references to the movie version of the story to keep the audience laughing.

"What are you doing here?" Nessarose questions Elphaba after her sister has been on the run.

"Well, there’s no place like home," Elphaba deadpans.

The performances are uniformly excellent, and the voices blend well with the orchestra, making the lyrics stand out.

Stand-in Coleen Sexton performed as Elphaba in place of lead Victoria Matlock on opening night.

It would be difficult for any actor not to be overshadowed by the comic Christina DiCicco in the showier role of Galinda, at least in the early scenes.

But Sexton does a nice job of emerging as the newly empowered witch, and she effectively expresses a range of moods, from poignancy in "I’m Not That Girl," to rage in "No Good Deed."

The score is by Stephen Schwartz, composer of "Godspell," "Pippin" and Disney’s "Pocahontas." While you are unlikely to walk out humming any particular number, they are serviceable to the story and keep the plot moving along.

The real power comes from the book by Winnie Holzman. What could have been a cheeky pastiche of well-worn Oz cliches is instead a thought-provoking and surprisingly emotional journey.

In this age of mass media and political manipulation, it is good to be reminded every now and then to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

While most performances for the Columbus production of "Wicked" are sold out, a lottery is offered every night, with a limited number of seats available through the drawing for $25.

Names can be entered at the Ohio Theatre box office two and a half hours before a performance, with the drawing held 30 minutes later. There is a limit of two seats per name, which can be purchased with cash only.

"Wicked" will return to Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center January 9-Feb. 3, 2008.

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