By Leanne Milech
Toronto’s third dose of Wicked is deliciously subversive and devilishly charming
Although I hadn’t seen Wicked before last Thursday, I’d heard of it, of course. I would have to have been living in a deep, dark theatre-less cave of oblivion to have been blind to the massive praise heaped on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical back in 2003, when it made its debut. The show graced Toronto’s stages in both 2005 and 2006, garnering local applause. It has now returned for a third run at the Canon Theatre. After seven years of hype, I figured it was time to actually see it. I went in a little jaded (“how could a mainstream musical show be THAT good?” I kept asking myself as the lights dimmed), and I came out pleasantly surprised.
Wicked is so much more than I’d expected: rather than being a cutesy prequel to the beloved Wizard of Oz, it is a multilayered companion piece that deals with Big Themes like friendship, feminism, family ties, racism, discrimination, beauty and the power of staying true to one’s own self all on a level that is simple enough for an eight-year-old child to understand and interesting enough to keep the attention of an adult audience.
The story centres around Elphaba, brilliantly played by Jackie Burns, and Galinda (who later becomes Glinda), joyously portrayed by Chandra Lee Schwartz. Elphaba is born a wretched green colour at birth and is instantly shunned from her family as well as society at large. Galinda, however, is born blonde, beautiful and perky. The kicker is that on the inside, Elphaba is just as beautiful – if not more so – than pretty Galinda.
The two meet as university students, where they are forced to be roommates as they study to develop their magical abilities. The unlikely duo become best friends. Through twists of fate and popular misunderstanding, Elphaba becomes the Wicked Witch of the West and Galinda the Good Witch of the North.
As the story developed, I found myself constantly re-evaluating my view of the The Wizard of Oz. Wicked made me feel a little bit silly for taking the black and white portrayals of the witches in The Wizard of Oz at face value. Wicked forces its audience to look beneath the surface of skin colour, beauty and “truth”, which is a huge lesson in critical thinking that people of any age can benefit from.
Thankfully, Wicked is also enormous fun. Serious messages are buoyed by charming musical numbers like “Popular”, which provides narration for Elphaba’s makeover session by Galinda, and “One Short Day”, an exciting romp leading up to Elphaba’s and Galinda’s first meeting with the Wizard in the Emerald City.
Heavier songs are soul-filled and gorgeous to listen to, particularly “Defying Gravity”, which is belted out by Burns in a soaring rendition that literally prompted goosebumps to sprout along my arms.
Set design is nicely done, with razzle and dazzle appropriate for a magical tale that takes place in a land called Oz. A well crafted mechanical dragon holds steady at the top of the stage, looking ready to pounce and keeping audience members on their toes.
“The show could have been a wee bit shorter,” my guest, Alicia, commented as we stood to leave, after participating in a standing ovation. She felt that four or five songs could have been cut from the book, leaving the audience with a performance that would clock in closer to two hours than two and half. While I see where she’s coming from, I have to say that I wasn’t bored at any point during the production.
And so you should believe the hype: Wicked lives up to its name – it’s a wicked production that manages to get across some fairly lofty messages about life with doses of magical music sprinkled throughout. Go see it and you will never look at things the same way again. Personally, I can’t think of a better endorsement for a show.
-Performances run from October 20 – November 28 at the Canon Theatre, 244 Victoria Street, Toronto.
-Showtimes are Tue – Sat 7:30pm and Wed, Sat & Sun 1:30pm
-Regular tickets range from $35 to $175 • Same-day rush tickets available via lottery 2.5 hours prior to performance at Canon Theatre box office for $25. Group rates are also available.
Photograph of Jackie Burns as Elphaba and Chandra Lee Schawrtz as Galinda by Joan Marcus.