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Green With Envy

February 9, 2009

Lately, I've been on a campaign to educate myself on many of the big musical theatre and opera works that I haven't yet experienced live on stage. A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about walking out of the Phantom of the Opera at half-time. I was not proud of this decision. But under the circumstances, I felt I would have done myself and possibly the audience sitting around me a greater disservice by staying put for Act Two.

Contrastingly, over the weekend, I was so riveted by Wicked (seen on tour at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre) that I was worried that my enthusiasm for this Wizard of Oz-inspired mega hit would cause me to rush the stage. I felt a twinge of envy for the performers. At times, I even wanted to be be up there under the lights in Susan Hilferty's staggeringly beautiful costumes belting out Stephen Schwartz's hummable songs -- a wholly unnatural sensation for someone who rarely feels inspired by musicals as an audience member and, as a singer, has repeatedly shunned opportunities to perform numbers from the musical repertoire.

Based on Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked cleverly and flamboyantly weaves together several important themes, including how reputations are made and destroyed, how things are rarely what they seem and how societies don't seem to be able to function without scapegoats. From a political perspective, the musical's subplot concerning the re-writing of history and the tightening of rules surrounding education brings the current worsening situation in Afghanistan sharply to mind.

Featuring a few truly memorable numbers -- eg "Popular" and "A Sentimental Man" -- the musical makes for a ripping good time too. There's tons of spectacle of course from dazzling couture to intricate sets, but it's all very much in service of the story.

The current production is also skillfully cast, with the perky, blonde Kendra Kassebaum as Glinda the "Good" witch acting as the perfect emotional and physical foil to Teal Wicks' angular, tortured and sensitive Elphaba the "Wicked" Witch of the East.

My regret at not having clicked with Wicked years ago is much more acute than my misgivings about walking out at intermission during Phantom. Given that the musical had its world premiere in San Francisco in 2003, I feel rather foolish going into paroxysms about Wicked six years on. It reminds me of going to a dinner party at a friend's house the other evening and laughing when the host, in all seriousness, declared that he had recently discovered a terrific new flavor of ice cream before producing, with a flourish, a delicious, albeit hardly innovative, tub of plain vanilla from his freezer.

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