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Wicked
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Winnie Holzman

Based on the Novel by Gregory McGuire
Musical Staging by Wayne Cilento
Directed by Joe Mantello
The Fox Theatre
December 10, 2015

Cast of Wicked Photo by Joan Marcus Wicked US National Tour

Cast of Wicked
Photo by Joan Marcus
Wicked North American Tour

It seems like Wicked has become something more of a phenomenon than simply a musical. It’s one of those shows that’s so beloved and that has such a devoted following that it has essentially become “critic-proof”. No matter what I or other reviewers say about the current touring production at the Fox, positive or negative, people will see it and love it. Still, it’s my job to write what I think, and I think the current production is, for the most part, excellent.

Wicked is basically a revisionist take on The Wizard of Oz, focusing on the “good witch” Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper) and the “Wicked Witch of the West”, or as she is called here, Elphaba (Mary Kate Morrissey, standing in for principal Emily Koch). This story takes everything you think you know about the Oz story and turns it around, where the witches are given backstories and the villains aren’t who you might think they are. In fact, both Elphaba and Glinda, although each has flaws, are portrayed as sympathetic college roommates, with Elphaba being the more misunderstood outcast (because she’s green) and Glinda the more outgoing personality who is well-loved by her fellow students. After initial animosity demonstrated in the production number “What Is This Feeling?” an unlikely friendship is eventually formed, but the story doesn’t end there. Presenting a unique twist on various Oz characters, we meet the cast of varying characters such as Elphaba’s despondent sister Nessarose (Megan Masako Haley), who is obsessed with the Munchkin Boq (Sam Seferian), who is in turn infatuated with Glinda. There’s also the self-absorbed prince Fiyero (Jake Boyd) who becomes involved with both Glinda and Elphaba. The story also involves something of a politcal plot that involves the illustrious Wizard himself (Stuart Zagnit) and the university’s scheming headmistress, Madame Morrible (Wendy Worthington). Needless to say, there’s a lot of plot, although the emphasis throughout is on the development of the Elphaba and Glinda characters and their growing and changing relationship.

I have to admit that, when it comes to this show, I’m in the “like it but don’t love it” camp. It’s an entertaining enough show, with some memorable music including the signature power ballads for Elphaba, “The Wizard and I” and “Defying Gravity” as well as the perky “Popular” for Glinda and some memorable production numbers like “What Is This Feeling” and “One Short Day”. The best thing about the show is the developing friendship between the two main characters, and the way each character grows and changes. Still, there are some clunky lyrics and the dramatic tone changes a little too quickly once the characters get to the Emerald City, and the ending… Well, I won’t spoil it, but I think it’s not a little contrived. Wicked is a good show, but I don’t think it’s a great one, and I know some fans will passionately disagree with me about that.

Despite my personal opinion about the show itself, it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser that resonates profoundly with its fans, and it can be extremely entertaining with some genuinely moving moments. As presented on tour, the production values are top-notch, with vibrant settings by Eugene Lee, colorful costumes by Susan Hilferty, spectacular lighting by Kenneth Posner and special effects by Chic Silber (including the spellbinding “Defying Gravity” sequence). It’s all kind of Steampunk-ish with gears everywhere and mechanical devices like a giant dragon that surmounts the stage and the “bubble” in which Glinda arrives to start the show. It’s all very stylish and extremely well-executed, except for the sound, which was so choppy at times that it was difficult to understand the words to the songs, especially in the production numbers in the first act. If I didn’t already know the songs, I probably would have been at a loss. Otherwise, it’s a well-presented show, with strong, dynamic staging that moves the story along well.

The cast is excellent as well. Cooper as Glinda was a standout for me, making her tour debut in St.Louis and doing an excellent job, portraying the character’s bubbly energy well, but especially coming alive in the second act as her character matures and is called upon to display more leadership qualities. Morrissey, the stand-by for Elaphaba, is also excellent, with strong stage presence and a great voice for those big songs. Her chemistry with Cooper is excellent, as is that with the amiable Boyd in the somewhat underwritten role of Fiyero. There are also extremely strong performances from Zagnit as the conflicted Wizard and Worthington as the conniving Madame Morrible. There are fine performances all around, in fact, and an energetic ensemble that performs well in the show’s production numbers.

Wicked is Wicked, simply stated. It’s an entertaining show that offers an alternative take on the familiar Oz tale, and it’s staged with energy and flair. As presented by the current North American touring company at the Fabulous Fox, this Wicked is a big, stylish, thoroughly enjoyable production.

Cast of Wicked Photo by Joan Marcus Wicked North American Tour

Cast of Wicked
Photo by Joan Marcus
Wicked North American Tour

 The North American touring production of Wicked runs at the Fox Theatre until January 3, 2016.

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Pippin
Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreography by Chet Walker, in the style of Bob Fosse
Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider
Peabody Opera House
December 10, 2014

Kyle Dean Massey Photo by Joan Marcus Pippin National Tour

Kyle Dean Massey
Photo by Joan Marcus
Pippin National Tour

The current Broadway revival of Pippin is something I’ve wanted to see since I first heard about it. Since trips to New York are few and far between for me, I was thrilled when I found out that the US National Tour, based on the Broadway production, would be coming to St. Louis. The whole concept of turning this show into a circus struck me as ideal for this show, the clips I’ve seen of the Broadway cast have been great, and now the tour has given those of us who were unable to see it in New York the opportunity to see this brilliant new re-imagining of this classic show. The touring production, which opened last night at the Peabody Opera House, definitely does not disappoint. With all the color, style, and spectacle of the circus, as well as an extremely talented cast, this show has “Magic to Do” and it succeeds in casting its spell on the St. Louis audience.

I had seen Pippin before, both live and on video (the 1981 recording with Ben Vereen and William Katt), but this new version is notable in that while it gives the production a total makeover, it seems just as true to the vision of the script as the original staging, albeit with a new ending.  The circus setting, with all its art and artifice, is an ideal backdrop for this story of a young prince (Kyle Dean Massey) on a quest for an extraordinary life.  The Leading Player is played by a woman this time (Lisa Karlin on opening night, covering for principal Sasha Allen), and in fitting with the circus theme, she’s the ringmaster. She introduces and orchestrates the action of the show in an increasingly controlling manner that grows more and more sinister as the show continues.  Pippin’s story takes him on many adventures, and the Leading Player is there to make sure events turn out as she has planned.  It’s actually kind of a play within a play, with the conceit that this is a troupe of traveling performers putting on a show, although it all seems real for Pippin. His adventures involve conflicts with his father Charles, or Charlemagne (John Rubenstein), stepmother Fastrada (Sabrina Harper) and her son, the dim-witted, war-obsessed Lewis (Callan Bergmann).  As Pippin tries everything from war to hedonism, to art to prayer, he eventually ends up finding a degree of happiness in an “ordinary” life on a farm with the widowed Catherine (Kristine Reese) and her son Theo (Zachary Mackiewicz, Lucas Schultz alternating), but is it enough?  What does the Leading Player have to say, and what about the promised Grand Finale that we’ll remember for “the rest of our lives”?  You’ll have to watch to see how that turns out.

The show has been re-imagined, and the circus theme works very well to drive the story and add even more substance to the simple but alternately humorous and poignant story. Performers and trained acrobats perform acts on the flying trapeze, as well as tricks with hula hoops, exercise balls and more. Elements of magic and puppetry are also used. The choreography, by Chet Walker in the style of original 1972 Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse, is dynamic and creative, with elements such as a gender-switched (1 woman, 2 men instead of 1 man, 2 women) version of the famous “Manson Trio” dance break in the middle of the song “Glory” recreated and featuring the Leading Player and backing dancers Matthew DeGuzman and Borris York.  There’s lots of Fosse-style flash blended with the circus elements on songs such as the spectacular opening number “Magic to Do”, and elaborately choreographed production numbers like “Glory”, “Morning Glow”, “Extraordinary” and more. It’s a vibrant show with a dark edge that’s made all the darker by the revamped ending.  It’s full of style, charm, suspense and astounding feats of acrobatics and illusion.  The color scheme is full of vibrant purples, blues and reds, and the circus tent-styled scenery by Scott Pask and the ingenious costumes by Dominique Lemieux establish a consistent and memorable look the the production.

The cast here is extremely impressive. Karlin anchors the production as the stylish, dictatorial and occasionally menacing Leading Player. With her top-notch dance skills, great voice and loads of stage presence, one would never know she’s the understudy if the program didn’t say it.  Massey, who was a wonderful Tony in West Side Story at the Muny in 2013, is full of charm, magnetism and sympathy as Pippin, with a strong, clear voice and an open, youthful countenance. His earnest, plaintive “Corner of the Sky” is a musical highlight of the show. There’s excellent supporting work from Rubenstein (who played Pippin in the original 1972 production) as a particularly vainglorious Charles, as well as Harper in a gleefully vampish performance as Fastrada, Reese as an engaging and slightly goofy Catherine, and Lucie Arnaz in a show-stopping turn as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, performing “No Time At All” with immense energy and wit.  The ensemble of dancers and circus performers is in excellent form, as well, performing some truly astounding stunts with confidence and apparent ease.  It’s high-quality cast for a top-level touring production.

This tour is so good, it makes up for not being able to see the show on Broadway.  It’s full of charm, humor, drama, and all the things promised in the opening song, with a few twists–some thrilling, some terrifying–along the way. This is Pippin re-invented and re-invigorated, and it’s glorious.  It’s definitely a show not to be missed.

Pippin National Tour Cast Photo by Terry Shapiro

Pippin National Tour Cast
Photo by Terry Shapiro

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