REVIEW: Wicked (Broadway in Chicago)

     
     

WFF: Wicked Friends Forever

or

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Enjoy Regime Change!

  

  
     

Chandra Lee Schwartz and Jackie Burns - Wicked - Broadway in Chicago

   
Broadway in Chicago presents
  
Wicked
   
Music/Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Directed by Joe Mantello
at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map)
through January 23  |  tickets: $35-$105  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Big, bold Wicked is back in town. Broadway in Chicago launched its surefire holiday winner with military precision Friday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Not a wrong note. Not a misstep. Not a hair out of place–and they’ve got a million fabulous wigs (Tom Watson) to keep in check, y’all.

Jackie Burns and chanra Lee Schwartz as Elphaba and Glinda in WickedJoe Mantello’s direction follows the Powell Doctrine of “overwhelming force,” so that audiences can be assured of Wicked as the one-stop shopping place for big talent, over-the-top pageantry, feel-good humor, and blow-your-hair-back music. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Plus, the production displays no shame in borrowing from the Disney playbook. So, do you desire dueling divas with the lungs and control to belt out those power ballads? Check. A suave male lead to fight over? Check. A goofy headmistress who turns into Cruella De Vil? Check. Gorgeous lighting (Kenneth Posner) and fun special effects (Chic Silber)? Check and check.

Don’t forget the tight and driven orchestra (P. Jason Yarcho) or the most excessive, blatantly overdone, asymmetrical costuming (Susan Hilferty) in the world. So, for those still on the lookout for a really, really big show to entertain family or those out-of-town guests, your ship has come in.

Naturally, Wicked is also really, really lite entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Still, revisiting Wicked creates a curious opportunity to re-examine the recent historical conditions under which it developed. Opening a month and a half after the US invasion of Iraq, Wicked throws a few blunt jabs at the War on Terror. Winnie Holzman (book) tried to throw a little politics into the mix without disturbing the musical’s overall feel-good vibe. It’s interesting to gage how well that has held up over the years. For the most part, since Wicked plays it both ways, its safe, bland pronouncements against oppression, increased surveillance, First Amendment violations and picking on people who are different come across like a beauty queen telling you that she wants world peace.

     
Chandra Lee Schwartz as Glinda the Good Witch Photo 6
Richard H. Blake as Fiyero in Wicked The Wonderful Wizard Jackie Burns as Elphaba in Wicked

But, hey, Wicked’s not about politics, right? Heck, no! It’s about two young women of radically different temperaments discovering that they can be best friends forever. Since Oz society casts the girls as “Good’ and “Evil”–and since they themselves never publicly buck that casting–the musical then becomes a rough and sloppy allegory on the moral ambiguities of Good and Evil becoming best friends forever. Now, there’s a fine fairy tale for a nation that cannot make up its mind. Are we the liberators of Iraq and Afghanistan or are we just making the world safe for Halliburton, BP, etc?

I only ask because, you know, not to be a buzz kill or anything but we are still in the middle of the same wars. Very. Very. Expensive. Wars.

Never mind. It’s the holidays and what better to take our minds off our troubles than a mongo production about two girls who loathe each other but, through a merry mishap, become college roommates, who then learn to love each other. I know it sounds predictable and, frankly, lesbian – but relax, parents, even the heterosexuality in this show earns only a G-rating. So, on that cheery note, Wicked is fun for the whole family, especially if your family is made up of girls or gay boys who’ve memorized the soundtrack from beginning to end.

I kid. Straight males can also get a lot out of Wicked, like finding out how the female mind works.

One of the most important rules of feminine society is “be nice.” Always be nice, no matter what. Even if people absurdly hate you for your green skin, even if your family rejects you, even if you’re a social pariah the moment you walk in the door, always, always be nice. Niceness is the perpetual feminine social criteria and niceness always kills.

Elphaba (Jackie Burns) delivers a deliciously sinister witchy laugh but, for all that, her outsider bad girl suffers from a distinct lack of personality. Whatever power Burns exhibits—and she is a (whew!) powerful Broadway songstress—she’s still straitjacketed into a role where nice victimhood is the order of the day. Even Elphaba’s breakout moment in the second act, when she operatically vamps into a fully-formed Wicked Witch of the West with “No Good Deed,” is a transformation that goes nowhere because we never get to see her act wicked.

Chandra Lee SchwartzClearly, the creators of Wicked had far more fun developing Elphaba’s foil. Galinda/Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) overtakes the show. Glinda has mastered nice so well she can be nasty, two-faced, empty-headed and hypocritical yet still retain the love of the hoi polloi. Glinda gets star treatment, not just from the people of Oz, but also in the production’s visual quotations of Legally Blonde during “Dear Old Shiz” and Evita during “Thank Goodness.” “Popular” is a wonderfully funny, sassy and knowing number, not just for its humorous critique of popularity, but also because the song just tells it like it is. Schwarz’s easy control over her part vivifies Glinda’s zany pretentiousness without making her ridiculously clownish. Her classical voice training certainly plays pink princess Elphaba’s green girl next door, but the real mastery she exhibits comes from her comic timing.

Through Elphaba we get a bad girl who isn’t really threatening. Through Glinda, Wicked gets to poke fun at the feminine rules of niceness without raising hairs on parental necks. Through Wicked we all get to laugh at the emptiness and shallowness of our social and political order without really altering it. We feel more helpless now than ever to alter it and that helplessness, in turn, reflects in all our entertainments, lite or otherwise.

We hope and change but nothing really changes. That’s the malaise we share with Oz. No matter how shallow we know popularity is, popularity is politics and popularity ultimately wins. Sure, Madame Morrible and The Wizard (Chicago natives Barbara Robertson and Gene Weygandt) get their comeuppance once Glinda takes over. But, no matter what regime change goes down in Oz, Good Glinda, who was never really good, still has to live out her central casting as Good–however limiting that is for her—while wicked Elphaba, who was never really evil, still has to live fugitive from the angry mob.

It seems that, at least according to Wicked, the marginalized are to stay marginalized for the sake of maintaining order. (Does that go for the talking animals as well, the ones who were oppressed under The Wizard’s regime? We never find out.) Plus, it’s not just that Elphaba or Glinda find themselves thrust into unyielding roles; it’s that they accept these artificial roles without trying to correct their fellow citizens about them or they accept them under the pretense of serving a “greater good.” For the greater good, truth has to be sacrificed. For the greater good, you stay in your artificial, socially constructed role and I’ll stay in mine.

Accept the role society has placed you in, even if you know it’s false. I’m not sure that’s a message that I would want any girl or boy to take away from an evening’s entertainment.

Sacrifice the truth. Um, no. That never leads to anything good.

Accept that there are some things the people are better off not knowing—they’re just a bunch of dummies anyway. No, I think I’d prefer something that encouraged young people to stand up to the crowd, as well as to their leaders, and I think I’d want them to engage with their fellow citizens, rather than write them off as impossible ignoramuses.

I’m obviously asking too much of Wicked. It’s just a friggin’ musical, for cryin’ out loud; a musical made for fun, a musical for girls and boys who don’t feel popular and who want a heroine of their own, a playful diversion from reality. But in a way, with the topics it attempts to examine, Wicked asks for it.

In the face of America’s continuing economic malaise, its stalemated Congress and its continued involvement in demoralizing, resource-sucking wars, I don’t see the value of a production that teaches either kids, or the adults that brought them, mournful helplessness over imbedded social structures or the chicanery of the powerful. After all, one good witch or, rather, two good witches are not going to get us out of this mess. 

But hey, at least we get to see the Wizard!

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Scene from Wicked by Stephen Schwartz - Broadway in Chicago

     
     

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REVIEW: The Santaland Diaries (Theater Wit)

  
  

Spend a bawdy evening with Santa’s fave martini-swilling elf

   
   

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Theater Wit presents
   
The Santaland Diaries
   
Written by David Sedaris
Adapted by
Joe Mantello
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A few days after Black Friday—and are you sick of it yet?  Has Christmas decor begun to look blindingly tacky to you?  Does the constant replay of Christmas tunes already fill you with bored revulsion?  You may need a retreat to an ashram where the saffron-robed monks have never heard of Christmas. 

Or you could try The Santaland Diaries, now onstage at Theater Wit, directed by Jeremy Wechsler.  A new holiday classic—although new is really stretching it since David Sedaris first regaled NPR audiences with his elfin misadventures in 1992.  Still, this ironic, melancholy 90’s swipe at America’s most oversold holiday has held up well, if for no other reason than because we, as a country, consistently make the same old mistakes about Christmas that we have ever made before.

Urinal - potrait“I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide the grinding enthusiasm that Santa requires,” quips Mitchell Fain.  His performance is definitely sharper, more caustic than Sedaris’s, who delivers his tale with soft, wry, and distanced resignation to the absurdities of his elf-training at Macy’s for Christmas.  Indeed, in a startling departure from Sedaris’s original work, the actor makes a stab at comparing Santa with Satan.  But who’s to say that’s wrong? 

In it’s own light, sardonic way, The Santaland Diaries is a parade of Christmas horrors, another example of man’s inhumanity to man, the banality of marketing manipulation wrapped in candy-striped tights and a green velvet coat.  Macy’s Santaland, constructed as the happiest place on earth at the most joyous time of year, gets exposed at its worst in this humorous yet Bruegelian portrait of communal venality and desperation. 

Being an elf in the service of Macy’s exposes one to a thousand humiliations and we can be grateful to Fain’s impeccable comic timing that these get rattled off with a full range, from self-deprecation to sly satire to burlesque to savage and direct improv with the audience.  But elfin humiliations in the name of commercialism are not the worst of Satanland Santaland.  There are much worse:  parents who slap their children because they won’t stop crying and get on Santa’s lap, parents who request a “traditional” Santa—by that they mean a Caucasian one, parents who manipulate their children to promote their own political views and parents who tell their children it’s okay to pee in the artificial snow.  Even martinis cannot allay the madness that only escalates in the countdown toward Christmas day.

IMG_4786_JPGFor this reason the act’s one last magical moment doesn’t quite sell.  Out of a million wonderfully weird and self-absorbed Santas, one shows up to treat the children as they should be treated and teach us all a Christmas lesson.  It’s the one sentimental false note of Joe Mantello’s adaptation.  While it might send the crowd out of the theater with a smile, it simply cannot reconcile all atrocities committed from attempting to manufacture warm and fuzzy holiday feelings to promote higher retail sales.

Real Christmas spirit can’t be bought or sold.  Real magical childhood moments are fleeting and unpredictable.  Real development as a human being means accepting life’s flaws and imperfections, not inhumanely overreaching to grasp at meaningless once-in-a-lifetime perfection.  If nothing else, The Santaland Diaries can help you laugh off the Christmas madness, even if that madness has become embedded in our yearly traditions.            

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   
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REVIEW: Theater Wit’s “SantaLand Diaries”

Theater Wit presents:

The Santaland Diaries

by David Sedaris
adapted by
Joe Mantello
directed by
Jeremy Wechsler
thru January 2nd (ticket info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

elf2 Who doesn’t love holiday traditions? Especially if one of your traditions is listening to David Sedaris’ reading of his radio essay “SantaLand Diaries.” When this piece first aired on NPR in 1992, it struck a nerve hard enough to propel Sedaris into a public radio superstar. It’s a true story about the underemployed writer living in New York taking a job as an Elf at Macy’s one Christmas season. Perhaps it’s the medium that makes it so personally appealing, but it’s also Sedaris’ writing, which is confessional, hilarious and honest.

For many lovers of regional theater there is another equally dear tradition: the one-man theatrical production of this piece, which I saw this weekend produced by Theater Wit. Adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello (Wicked, Assassins) in 1996, the one act monologue covers Sedaris’ bases but with broader strokes; making it both more theatrical and open enough for voices other than Sedaris’ to crawl into the role of the anonymous narrator.

In this production, our narrator introduces himself right away as Mitch. He’s Mitchell Fain actually, and this is his third year telling this story under the direction of Theater Wit artistic director Jeremy Wechsler. It’s an improvisational, audience interactive production, in which Fain breaks out of character repeatedly to share personal anecdotes and connects with audience members one on one.

Fain’s Crumpet (as the elf names himself) is different from Sedaris’. He’s boozier, more jaded and older. He’s been around long enough to bring a special kind of indignation to his role as an elf. He’s also Jewish, bringing a nice new layer of irony to the already super sardonic show. Mitchell Fain is a bold actor and brings so much of himself to the stage, that even the truest David Sedaris fans will allow themselves to be seduced by his performance. As he switches back and forth between Crumpet and Mitchell, the transitions can be somewhat jarring and at times even awkward at the top of the show. But once he gets going and the asides become hotter and freer flowing, Mitchell and Crumpet flow nicely and the cohesiveness makes for something that is entirely new, and not a retelling of an old holiday favorite. An appropriate presentation of a show that is at its core about the aggravating façade of holiday traditions.

Joey Wade has created an ironically generic set for Fain to play around in, which he does in a mostly compelling way. The crew gets into the fun, at one point someone pulled the lights on Fain during an (I’m guessing) improvised Judy Garland impression. The Theater Building, which hosts the show, has a full bar in the lobby and the audience is encouraged to drink (Crumpet the Elf goes through about a shakers worth of martini in the duration of the show). It’s a festive environment, perfect for anyone who is too jaded for Tiny Tim, but not so jaded that they can’t sit through a one man retelling of a 1992 radio essay. For audiences looking for something subversive enough to stomach but not so subversive that they have to think, this is a perfectly pleasant night at the theater.

 

Rating: ★★★

“Wicked” – Final weekend!!

 

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It’s hard to believe, but after nearly 4 years, Wicked is finally closing (making it the longest-running Broadway-touring play in Chicago’s history).  I have to admit that I saw it 3 times (once during previews, once with a visiting friend, and once more with my niece), and I enjoyed it each time – mostly because it’s such a delightfully clever story. 

Anyway…

Farmhouse Only this weekend remain for Chicagoans to see WICKED, the musical phenomenon that has changed Chicago “for good”.  The WICKED drawing will continue to take place for all performances. WICKED will take its final bow in Chicago on January 25, 2009.

WICKED has helped Broadway In Chicago stand as the fifth most popular tourist attraction in the City of Chicago and has spurred interest in theatre both locally and nationally.  When surveyed, over 70 percent of the WICKED theatre patrons said that they had plans to see another show in Chicago within the year.  

GlindaGoodWitch Called “Broadway’s biggest blockbuster” by The New York Times and “a cultural phenomenon” by Variety, WICKED continues to cast a spell on all of Chicagoland and its many visitors – over 2.9 million people have attended WICKED in Chicago with audience members representing all 50 U.S. states and all seven continents. WICKED is now the longest running Broadway musical in Chicago ’s theater history. The Chicago company of WICKED took the stage on June 24, 2005 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre.

WickedWitch WICKED is produced by Marc Platt , Universal Pictures, The Araca Group, Jon B. Platt and David Stone . Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, WICKED has music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman. Directed by Joe Mantello, with musical staging by Wayne Cilento, WICKED is currently presented in Chicago; a US National Tour; on Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre; in Stuttgart, Germany; Melbourne, Australia; Tokyo, Japan; and in London at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. WICKED will be opening in San Francisco on January 27, 2009 at the Orpheum Theatre.

WICKED is now playing through January 25, 2009 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre ( 24 W. Randolph St .).

For more information, visit www.WickedTheMusical.com/Chicago or www.BroadwayInChicago.com

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