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What a wicked show!

/ 05:17 AM February 08, 2014

LEADING LADIES. Suzie Mathers as Glinda and Jemma Rix as Elphaba

“Spectacle” is the word that best describes “Wicked”— and that’s putting it mildly.

Upon entering the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), where this touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical plays until March 9 before heading back to Australia, one is greeted by a gigantic metallic dragon perched on the proscenium.

The beast’s sole purpose is to come alive—that is, sway its head this way and that—for a few seconds at the start of the overture, before returning to its lifeless state for the rest of the show. It’s more a decorative centerpiece, actually, but it is also a perfect harbinger of the scale of things to come. Once the curtain opens, there is no stopping the extravagance of the show’s technical elements from attempting to overwhelm the senses.

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With premium seats priced at P7,000 (and yes, this is almost always a full-house affair), this version of “Wicked” is the real deal. It is an exact replica of the Broadway and West End productions, which means flying out to New York or London is suddenly no longer necessary for this musical’s hordes of Filipino devotees (and new converts).

Save for the Australasian cast of first-rate triple-threats, everything is as it appears on the other side of the globe. That is, Eugene Lee’s set design, Susan Hilferty’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lights, Wayne Cilento’s musical staging and choreography, and Joe Mantello’s original direction, now recreated by Lisa Leguillou.

MATHERS and Rix, with only their voices and overflowing talent, are the most spectacular part of this musical.

Queen bee

As 21st-century Broadway entertainment goes, “Wicked” is the undeniable reigning queen bee.

It is tear-jerking drama and riotous comedy. It is trite romance anchored on the indispensable love triangle and smart-ass pop-culture commentary. It has the bitch-fighting elements of “Mean Girls,” a pro-animal stance that would make Peta (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) proud, and a semester’s worth of material for a political science class.

That is to say, Winnie Holzman’s book for the musical seems to suffer from some form of identity crisis, which becomes especially glaring when one remembers that what “Wicked” set out to be in the first place is an unauthorized revisionist look at L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and/or the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”

Yes, it is about the life and times of Elphaba, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West, and her relationship with Glinda the Good, but this nearly three-hour musical apparently wants to be a lot of other things as well.

Fans of the Gregory Maguire novel, upon which “Wicked” is based, may be disappointed to know, if they still don’t, that this stage adaptation has reduced the author’s labyrinthine fantasy into a simplistic tale of good and evil, and the gritty shades of gray in between.

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Pure rapture

AS 21ST-CENTURY Broadway entertainment goes, “Wicked” is the undeniable reigning queen bee. The Manila leg of the Australian prod runs until March 9.

Ah, but how easy it is to forgive Holzman’s lapses in writing when the finished product is a song-and-dance extravaganza of the highest order, a musical that’s as close and true to the spirit of entertainment as any show could possibly get.

There are flying monkeys and flying witches. The dancing is pure rapture. The set, dominated by gargantuan cogwheels and scaffolds, fluidly shifts from the witches’ school (complete with a towering statue of The Wizard) to Glinda’s bedroom (equipped with a well-appointed rack of luxury shoes) to the Emerald City (beautifully lit by Posner in hues of green) to a cornfield featuring the farm girl Dorothy Gale’s fallen house in the backdrop.

For fans of “Oz,” there is the added delight of Baum’s characters in cameos: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and, in one of the show’s cleverest pieces of humor, Dorothy, held captive in Elphaba’s cellar.

Let’s not forget “Defying Gravity,” now karaoke fodder, singing contest staple and “Glee” property (well, not really). But as a musical sequence, it has become undeniably one of musical theater’s most iconic Act I endings. The sheer grandiosity of seeing Elphaba literally soar to the night sky is matched only by a few—say, the falling chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera.”

A slight surprise, then, that in retrospect, “Wicked’s” most potent ingredients are actually its most earthbound elements.

Its most gut-wrenching scene happens to be its quietest, which makes the pain all the more cruel. During the “Dancing Through Life” sequence, Elphaba, alone on the ballroom floor, executing her own outlandish routine amidst stares of amusement and disbelief from both actors and audience. It’s the one moment that perfectly captures how it must feel to be an outcast.

Leading ladies

Which brings us to the pair of leading ladies who, with only their voices and overflowing talent, are the most spectacular part of this musical. (It is the male characters who do most of the sitting on the side in “Wicked.”)

In this production, those ladies are Jemma Rix and Suzie Mathers.

Rix, one of those extraordinary women blessed with lungs of steel, almost never leaves the stage. As Elphaba, she has three solos that require insane belting ability, in addition to duets and group numbers.

It’s a performance that’s mostly noted for the exceptional vocal talent involved, but Rix is just as accomplished an actress, skillfully charting Elphaba’s course from awkward and naïve to sympathetic but maligned.

Mathers, on the other hand, is the comic heart of this production. Her portrayal of Glinda is as buoyant as the bubble she descends on during her first entrance, but she adamantly refuses to fall for the trappings of the dumb blonde stereotype.

Her rendition of that ode to outward appearances, “Popular,” reveals an eye for physical comedy, an ear for musical phrasing and a knack for comic timing. In her considerably briefer turn as a leading character, Mathers manages to always send the audience into fits of electric laughter, in a performance that literally and limitlessly flies.

The rest of the cast are just as capable in their roles; Emily Cascarino as Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, and Edward Grey as Boq, the future Tin Man, are especially affecting.

Pop-heavy

So, let it be said: Those expecting to see theater of laudable depth and intelligence are better off watching something else—Repertory Philippines’ masterfully crafted production of “Wait Until Dark,” for example.

But for those seeking to be visually dazzled and wildly entertained, or for those who just want to feel, to laugh and cry and have an altogether fantastic time, well, there can’t be a more satisfying show right now.

The pop-heavy score, by Stephen Schwartz (also of Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Pocahontas” and “Enchanted”), is already a peculiar attraction in itself.

When it opened on Broadway in 2003, “Wicked” was a critical disaster. “This show does not speak well for the future of the Broadway musical,” declared The New York Times.

Eleven years later, look how audiences worldwide—Manila included—have fallen for and embraced its magical spell.

This review is based on the production’s Jan. 31 1:30 p.m. performance, which was a benefit show for victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Tacloban City. All of the afternoon’s proceeds, including ticket sales, venue rental and the P205,000 raised during the post-show live auction, where CCP backstage tours and afternoon tea with the “Wicked” cast were up for grabs, went to that cause.

An online auction for “Wicked” paraphernalia and a vacation package to see the musical in London is ongoing at bid@

wickedthemusical.com.ph until Feb. 15.

One of the afternoon’s sponsors was PLDT Telpad, said to be the world’s first landline-and-tablet-in-one package. The “Wicked” original Broadway cast recording is available for download on Spinnr through Telpad.

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TAGS: Broadway, Theater, “Wicked”
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