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Friday, February 14, 2020

'Wicked' at the Hippodrome Will Leave You Spellbound

Talia Suskauer and Allison Bailey

Hello, you munchkins out there. Do I have news for you! One of the most endearing and enduring Broadway musicals of all time, the touring production of Wicked, is making its fourth stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre. And just like the previous iterations, this production is as enchanting as ever. #hocoarts

Scored by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, Wicked is based on the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, itself a retelling of the classic 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and the iconic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Who hasn’t seen at least once The Wizard of Oz?

Wicked, which opened on Broadway in 2003, captured three Tony Awards and a host of other accolades.  The prevailing color throughout is green. You see it in the lighting, the costumes, the skin color of a main character, the color of a potion that created the skin color, the Emerald City, even envy.

And speaking of green, Wicked is the second highest grossing Broadway musical of all time trailing only The Lion King. Why? Because both musicals offer high quality entertainment and appeal to children as well as adults thus broadening the audience.

Talia Suskauer in "Defying Gravity"
Multiple Tony Award winner Joe Mantello helms a sterling spectacle at the Hippodrome presenting optimal stage magic and effects that when combined with a talented cast and great music, it results in a captivating, one could say a jaw-dropping, theatrical experience.

Under the musical direction of Conductor Evan Roider, the orchestration is wonderful and well-balanced. The wizardry on the stage is highlighted by the signature production number “Defying Gravity” that brings down the curtain (and the house) at the end of the first act. It is worth the price of admission just to see that performed.

The story of Wicked takes place prior to Baum’s novel and before the fictional Dorothy was even alive. In an unusually plot-heavy musical, there are so many twists and turns one might get whiplash. Nonetheless, the story is easy to follow despite the rapid pace of the action particularly in the second act.

It tells of two young girls from the Land of Oz in which one was born with green skin named Elphaba who is played exceptionally by Talia Suskauer. The other, Galinda, who changes her name later to Glinda, played by Allison Bailey, simply radiates beauty. They cross paths in school but to say their relationship was complicated is an understatement.

Possessing disparate appearances, outlooks and personalities, the two begin as rivals then end up as close friends. Their evolution includes a rivalry over their common love-interest, Fiyero, played effectively by Curt Hansen as well as their reactions to the corruption of the Wizard’s government.

Allison Bailey and Talia Suskauer 
The contrasts between Elphaba and Glinda couldn’t be starker. Elphaba was smart, intense, an advocate for animals and possessed the skills of magic though limited in that capacity.  Glinda was bubbly, pretentious, gorgeous, self-centered and manipulative. Where Elphaba’s green skin that was caused by a potion given to her mother by the mother’s lover caused her to be basically rejected by her non-biological father and ostracized at school, Glinda was extremely popular, and she had no trouble reminding people of that.    

Friendship and trust are the underlying themes as well as prejudice and tolerance. Government corruption also plays a role in the story. And what may appear wicked or good to some may actually be the reverse. As the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. The story makes you think as well as being entertained. If you haven’t seen Wicked before, you’re in for a treat. If you have, the magic will continue.

Talia Suskauer as Elphaba is simply outstanding. Who among us haven’t felt they were the underdog at some point? We can certainly relate to Elphaba to a degree, and Ms. Suskauer’s  acting skills draw empathy from the audience.

But her Mezzo-Soprano vocals are undoubtedly Broadway caliber.  She shines in every song she participates in, notably “The Wizard and I,” a duet with Sharon Sachs playing the role of Madame Morrible; “I’m Not That Girl;” “As Long As You’re Mine,” a sensational duet with Curt Hansen; and a bona fide showstopper, “No Good Deed,” a brilliant solo that evoked a thunderous ovation from the appreciative audience the evening this performance was reviewed.

Stunningly beautiful Allison Bailey effectively conveys the complex personality of Galinda/Glinda. Ditzy when she wants to be, smart when she needs to be, Ms. Bailey portrays the character with relish.  Her beautiful Soprano voice is on display in “Popular,” the reprise of “I’m Not That Girl” and in the emotionally charged duet with Ms. Suskauer “For Good.”

My only quibble has to do with the sound design. It wasn’t clear if Ms. Bailey’s mic wasn’t turned up sufficiently or if she needed to project more especially during dialogues in the first act.  Whatever the cause, hopefully some sound adjustment will take place in subsequent performances.

Curt Hansen as Fiyero
Having appeared in the Broadway production of Wicked, Curt Hansen is quite familiar with the part of Fiyero, another complex character. He plays the role of the handsome common love-interest of Elphaba and Glinda with verve and enthusiasm. Mr. Hansen showcases his potent tenor voice in the duet with Ms. Suskauer “As Long As You’re Mine.”

Other fine performances are turned in by Cleavant Derricks as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Amanda Fallon Smith as Nessarose; Elphaba’s younger sister born paralyzed from the waist down and who was her father’s clear favorite; the aforementioned Sharon Sachs as Madame Morrible, Tom Flynn as Doctor Dillamond, the fatherly professor-goat who could speak but was silenced by the powers that be; and DJ Plunkett as the munchkin Boq who as of this writing, is still looking for love.

The leads are supported by an energetic ensemble that performs proficiently to the choreography of James Lynn Abbott.

Kenneth Posner’s lighting design is beyond superb in its creativity and execution. Susan Hilferty’s costume design is so imaginative and eclectic it is indescribable.

The set designed by Eugene Lee while aesthetically appealing, could be confusing. The prevailing background theme is a Time Dragon Clock from the book. If you didn’t read the novel (I didn’t), you would not understand its significance. However, other scenery has more clarity and the one depicting the crashed house form the tornado with the cornfield in the background (pictured) is gorgeous.

Wicked is an entertainment bonanza with interesting characters, eye-pleasing staging, a lush score and sterling performers. Parents should be eager to bring their children if for nothing else, there is good messaging within the plot with lessons to be learned. It is highly recommended.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Wicked runs through March 8 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit here or here , call 800-982-ARTS, or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

Photos: Joan Marcus

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