The outrageously successful musical Wicked is approaching its 15th anniversary, and now it's back at Playhouse Square on one of those regular return visits common for touring Broadways shows. This might elicit a yawn from people who have either seen the dazzling Wicked staging in years past and are satisfied with that, or who have no particular interest in this prequel to The Wizard of Oz.
But what if you knew that the story of these two witches —"nasty" Elphaba and "good" Glinda — is really a statement about the current torments our country finds itself enduring? Does that make it sound more interesting?
Okay, maybe not. But it is interesting that a play written more than a decade ago has so many parallels to what's going on in the U.S. today. This is not to say that the musical by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book) has lost any of its attraction for its traditional fan base.
That foundation of fans includes various versions of Oz obsessives who never tire of reliving the imagined backstories of the witches, the Tin Woodsman, et al. The show's BFFs also include waves of tween girls who flock to the show wherever it appears, since its female-empowering story involving a complicated relationship between two young women thrums perfectly with that audience segment.
And happily, this particular production is just as consistently professional as always. The two leads, Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda and Mary Kate Morrissey as Elphaba, deploy just enough performance DNA from the renowned creators of these roles on Broadway. With Mason channeling Kristin Chenoweth's lighter-than-air giggly determination and Morrissey paying homage to Idina Menzel's vulpine indomitability, this version feels at once familiar and fresh.
Of course, that freshness may emanate in part from the social and political context in which the show now finds itself. To begin with (and as we all know), the Wicked Witch of the West is green — not with envy, it turns out, but thanks to an affair her mother had with a shadowy dude who packed a powerful green elixir. Because of her color, Elphaba is singled out for torment and is sent to a boarding school with her acceptably colored (um, white) sister Nessarose (Catherine Charlebois), who has her own problems since she's handicapped and uses a wheelchair. Right away we have representatives from two groups, people of color and people with disabilities, that have become targets in some quarters in the past few months.
After Elphaba meets Galinda (soon to be Glinda), they take a class taught be an erudite goat, Dr. Dillamond (a baaad-ass Harry Bouvy). You see, in this world the animals are wise and quite talkative. But there is trouble afoot, or ahoof, since the four-legged prof in the bespoke suit finds a slur written on his blackboard: "Animals should be seen and not heard!" Granted, it doesn't have the snap and sizzle of the current white supremacists' rant, "Jews will not replace us!" But the echo is pretty damn compelling.
If you think I should be readjusting my tinfoil hat about now, back off. You ain't heard nothing yet. That "Animals should be seen and not heard!" screed could also refer to two groups of human animals in our world who have now fallen weirdly quiet: those Republican politicians and Bible-quoting evangelicals who find themselves unable to speak out against an accused serial child molester, Roy Moore, who is now running for the U.S. Senate in Alabama.
And let's face it, if Moore wins and is elevated to the U.S. Senate, it will perfectly define, in a ghastly way, the best song in this show, "Defying Gravity." Especially the line, "I'm through with playing by the rules/Of someone else's game."
In a different way, Wicked also captures this moment in America by wallowing in excess. There are too many songs, many of which are undistinguished; too much industrial frou-frou in the scenic design (gears everywhere!); and too many colliding themes — tolerance, animal rights, popularity, fate vs. free will, the illusion of reality, yadda yadda. But let's face it, when you have flying monkeys and an ultimately triumphant outcast witch in your show, you can't go wrong.
Of course, the key lesson in the original Oz movie is that there is no "wizard" out there to magically make everything okay and to help us be who we'd like to be. Nobody is behind a curtain, pulling levers to benefit the country. It's up to us. By the way, have you decided to run for office, any office, yet?
As ponderous and bombastic as it often is, Wicked is wickedly pleasing on a number of levels. Best of all, it takes you away from the thought that we're living in a ghastly Hieronymous Bosch version of our democracy, an upside-down Oz as retouched by Salvador Dali. And for that, we can only be grateful.