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Theater review: Wicked 

There are at least three good reasons for staging Wicked at Ovens Auditorium rather than Uptown at the PAC. More tickets can be sold out at Ovens, where enough people are willing to brave the balcony even if visibility isn't ideal from another zipcode. The elaborate installation, with its horrific flying-monkey machinery high above the proscenium, would tie up the Belk during the entire four-week engagement, complicating our sacred Speed Weeks revels. Most importantly, the multi-colored art deco lighting at Ovens can be turned a bright glowing green to match our heroine Elphaba.

It still works -- unless you start paying closer attention to the plotline and how flimsily it connects to The Wizard of Oz. Apparently, the Wiz was a staunch opponent of animal rights, influenced by the evil Madame Morrible, a sorcery instructor who was on sabbatical leave throughout L. Frank Baum's career. And why, when he wrote his Oz novels, did Baum forget to tell us that the Tin Man was the Good Witch Glinda's spurned admirer? Similarly attached with rubberbands are the Scarecrow and the origin of the Cowardly Lion's cowardliness. Students of Baum and MGM will no doubt do sharp double-takes when the Wicked musical, based on Gregory Maguire's novel with book by Winnie Holzman and music/lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, informs us that the heretofore docile Ozians are storming the Wicked Witch of the West's castle.

Less is more when trying to make connections and fill in origins. Readers and viewers are unlikely to ask how this North-South-East-West thing got set up, so it's better to keep mum on the subject than to offer a lame explanation. When Wicked first played at Ovens in April 2008, I was sufficiently blown away by its and energy and theatricality that I didn't probe deeply into its plotcraft.

The energy and theatricality of Wicked are powerful enough to wrap you in its world. Then it quickly lets go. Coming back to Ovens after two years, I found that I remembered little about Wicke aside from the striking "Defying Gravity" finale at the end of the first act and the seismic response it drew from the audience. My amnesia was even more total when I looked at the playlist. All I remembered was liking the songs more than I expected.

So I felt confident that I would experience Wicked altogether freshly the second time around. Of course, that didn't happen. Sound was too loud and unfocused at the beginning, a problem that should have been solved the night before when the show opened. The technical wizardry wasn't as plentiful as I had remembered, and its impact was slightly blunted. Parallels with Phantom of the Opera -- the flashback structure, the mystery and black magic, the vestigial gargoyle spanning the proscenium -- revealed themselves from the beginning, and the aroma of Frankenstein wafted toward me at the end. I was charmed, amused, and touched once again by the story of goat professor Dr. Dillamond and his cruel persecution, but I wanted to see more.

Yet the stars shone as brightly. Vicki Noon's performance as Elphaba wasn't as riveting -- or wicked -- as Carmen Cusack's was in 2008, but her interactions with Glinda, Dillamond, and glamour boy Fiyero were more natural and affecting. In the Glinda matchup, I may have been even more delighted by Natalie Daradich than I was with Katie Rose Clarke two years ago, because her evolution from most-popular-on-campus vanity to soul sister empathy was more gracefully traced. And while we're on the subject of witches, Michelle London's Nessarose was thankfully free of the whiny tedium I detected in 2008. I can only hope that Kristine Reese, who took over on May 25, continues in the same vein.

Chris Peluso as Fiyero ably negotiates the growth curve that precedes Glinda's, albeit with less motivation from the script, but the real strength in the cast comes from the veteran character actors. Don Richard as Elph's father, Marilyn Caskey as Madame Morrible, and Don Amendolia as The Wizard are all blue chippers delivering the melodrama, while David de Vries as Dillamond is equally adept at the pathos.

Aside from the "Defying Gravity" spectacle, what struck me most musically were the power duets. Schwartz may not have penned his most memorable melodies for this score, but the blend of voices between Elphaba and Fiyero in "As Long as You Need Me" melts away the unlikelihood of their romance, and the harmonies of the witches' duets -- especially "For Good" near the end of Act -- are spine-tingling.

Having seen that the musical doesn't scrupulously follow Maguire's novel, my wife Sue actually enjoyed Wicked better the second time around. So here's the drill: forget the book and forget the Yellow Brick Road as best you can. Then you'll be fine at Ovens.

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