Monday, April 16, 2012

Review: Wicked at Denver's Buell Theatre

Posted by on Mon, Apr 16, 2012 at 12:57 PM

I know what I'm supposed to say about Wicked, the Broadway phenomenon that opened a six-week stand at Denver's Buell Theatre last week. I'm supposed to say it's a confection, an overhyped combination of cartoonish characters and sappy pop tunes that appeals only to teenage girls.

Only I can't.

Because if you look past the glitzy veneer, if you set aside the hype that has helped make it the No. 1 show on Broadway for nine years running, you'll see it for what it really is. A smart, sassy satire of recent American history.

Think about it. There's the leader who came to power by dubious means and maintains his popularity by adopting a bumbling, aw-shucks persona. There's his second-in-command, a Machiavellian mastermind who's considered to be the real power behind the throne. And then there's the way these two manipulate the media, convincing the citizens to relinquish their civil rights in the name of defeating a common foe.

Sound familiar?

  • JOAN MARCUS
  • And you thought you had an annoying roommate in college.

Nominally, of course, Wicked is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the viewpoint of Elphaba, aka the Wicked Witch of the West. Only in this version, Elphaba isn't wicked at all.

But in a world where conformity is the highest virtue, a smart, green-skinned girl with unusual powers doesn't stand a chance. And when Elphaba discovers that the Wonderful Wizard of Oz may not be so wonderful — especially in his use of censorship and intimidation to silence his enemies — she rebels, and soon finds herself the target of a media campaign to recast her every action as evil.

"Where I'm from, we believe all sorts of things that aren't true," the Wizard tells Elphaba. "We call it 'history.'"

This is the third time the show has come to Denver, and if you've seen it before, you may wonder whether it's worth seeing again. After all, the story's the same, the score's the same, the sets and costumes are the same.

The difference, of course, is the cast. And for me, at least, that's reason enough.

Mamie Parris is simply phenomenal, grounding her Elphaba with an earnest sincerity that'll tug at even the hardest of hearts. And she boasts a remarkably agile voice, handling both the bombastic belt of "Defying Gravity" and the more tender yearning of "I'm Not That Girl" with equal panache.

  • JOAN MARCUS
  • It's not easy being green.

Alli Mauzey is almost her match as Glinda, the "good" witch. Several new gags have been written for her, and while Mauzey goes way beyond previous Glindas in the perkiness department, which can get grating, there's no denying her natural comic flair.

Other standouts include Broadway veteran Mark Jacoby (he was in the original cast of both Grand Hotel and Ragtime) as a charmingly rumpled, folksy Wizard and Andy Kelso, who made Glinda's boyfriend Fiyero more than just a stereotype of a self-absorbed prince.

In my book, though, it's the score by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) that's the real star. It is in turn playful, moving, ironic and clever, with unforgettable melodies and lyrics so witty that they almost seem like a throwback to the Cole Porter musicals of the 1930s.

Listen a little closer and you'll realize that the entire score is tied together by a common theme, exploring as it does the many different meanings to which we assign to the word "good."

Yes, you can appreciate the show for its score, or its humor or even its eye-popping costumes.

But if you're too embarrassed, just tell them you're there for the satire.

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