Review: Like a finely made clock, Fresno’s ‘Wicked’ keeps ticking in perfect time
I’m a “Wicked” four-timer now. Does that get me into the special Emerald Lounge when I fly Oz Airways? Even though I’ve seen the show enough times that the spectacle and emotional impact doesn’t surprise me like before, there’s still a moment that never fails to amaze me. That was the case again on Thursday (the official media night) of the national tour’s stellar third visit to Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre.
Pictured above: Erin Mackey, left, and Mariand Torres in the national tour of ‘Wicked.’ Photo: Joan Marcus
The moment is the end of the first act, of course, when a defiant Elphaba — the green incarnation of female empowerment whose razor-sharp connection to our contemporary gender zeitgeist hasn’t frayed one iota since the show opened in 2003 — takes flight.
If you haven’t seen the show, skip the next paragraph, but the rest of us know what’s coming, whether through repeat viewings or cultural osmosis.
Cornered by the Wizard’s Secret Service agents, er, guards, Elphaba hides for a moment. (The better to get into that safety harness, my pretty.) Then, with a great blast of music, she reappears, ascending skyward. A combination of fabric, darkness and a potent lighting design tricks your eyes and makes her appear not only to rise but become enormous. To me it’s always looked as if Elphaba’s cape — which Glinda has tenderly offered her moments before — becomes a pyramid of form rising from the stage. Belting out the tune “Defying Gravity,” Elphaba finishes her declaration of independence, and when the scene goes to black to end the act, one solitary light focused on her head remains for a split second before it, too, darkens. The effect is to imprint upon our retinas the image of a face eerily floating far above us, disembodied yet somehow solidly connected to the earth below, as if she’ll be watching over us.
It remains, years after seeing “Wicked” for the first time, one of the truly amazing bits of stagecraft I’ve experienced. And this time, viewing No. 4, was no different.
This “Wicked” feels like a step above the recent visit to Fresno of “The Lion King” in terms of a first-tier national tour. It remains fresh, vibrant and rousing.
A few deadline thoughts:
• The show has been running so long there are probably enough former Elphabas and Glindas out there to form a marching band. I really like our Fresno versions (Erin Mackey as Glinda and Mariand Torres as Elphaba). With great comic timing, Mackey brings a clumsy athleticism to Glinda that never seems too broad but still draws big laughs. As Elphaba, Torres offers a scrappy, Earth-Mother ruggedness to the role. Mackey’s vocals were impeccable on Thursday, while Torres belted it out just fine with only a few scratchy-throat moments. Together, I feel that both offer subtle variations on their respective roles (within the strict parameters of a Broadway tour, of course). They make these characters seem fresh. They make a great pair.
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• Two other leading cast members are particularly fine: Sharon Sachs as Madame Morrible; and Jason Graae as the Wizard. Sachs is perhaps the most unsettling Morrible I’ve seen. (I could see her in another life as a very scary ministress of propaganda.) And Graae’s soft-shoe sensibility and beautiful vocals shine. Curt Hansen’s Fiyero, however, didn’t resonate with me as much; his first scene felt weak, but he grew stronger as the evening progressed.
• It’s a funny thing about social media. Michael Wartella, who plays the munchkin Boq, posted a short video on Instagram upon arriving in Fresno about the dearth of people around on a downtown weeknight, and suddenly everyone in town knew about it. Mark Standriff, the city’s director of communications (and, as readers of The Munro Review already know, a musical theater veteran), responded with a video of his own filmed in the Saroyan lobby. He invited Wartella to go out on the town with him. (Word is that Biq — oh, sorry, Boq) has accepted. And he’s since apologized.) The incident is sort of funny and sort of infuriating, mostly because of the internet offense industry’s ability to magnify matters of absolutely no consequence. Plus, I am not a thin-skinned Fresnan and actually get pretty annoyed when people here get huffy about such things. But — and here’s the weirdness of social media — every time Boq came on stage I thought to myself: “That Munchkin hates Fresno!” I couldn’t get it out of my mind. By the way, Wartella is very, very good in the role.
.@WICKED_Musical is back in town – and one of the cast members had a little fun at Fresno’s expense. Here’s my official response (and I’m glad @MikeWartella has a great sense of humor!) pic.twitter.com/XoNJmc6LP3
— Mark Standriff (@MarkStandriff) March 21, 2019
• The technical/spectacle side of the production is just as consistent as ever. This show continues to be as close to Broadway quality as I’ve seen in a tour. (In that regard, the score is most definitely “Wicked,” 1; “Lion King,” 0.) The sound design was excellent — absolutely impeccable — from where I was sitting in the Saroyan. On a repeat viewing, it’s fun to pay attention to the smaller details: the constantly changing colors of the sky; the elaborate, clockwork set’s seemingly endless combinations of gears and wheels; the strange and fascinating costumes of the Emerald City inhabitants that feel like a cross between the freakish citizens of Panem in “The Hunger Games” and a gender-neutral Scottish Games celebration. There’s something new to see every time.
• Finally, I’m impressed with how much “Wicked” offers in terms of layers of meaning. Sure, there are the big themes (women power, revisionist history, discrimination). The message that resonated most with me Thursday is the ever-present allure of authoritarianism. It’s so easy to hope for a charismatic leader to take care of all our problems. At one point Elphaba says, “If something bad is happening to the animals, someone’s got to tell the Wizard. That’s why we have a Wizard!” Except Wizards don’t always deliver. That’s the case in Oz. And our world, too.