A welcome return for Wicked

Jennafer Newberry as Glinda and Lissa deGuzman as Elphaba face off in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Witches have returned to Chicago, and an opening night full house was definitely excited to welcome them back. Broadway in Chicago brings the touring company of Wicked to the Nederlander Theatre for a delightful new run through Dec. 4. That two-month time period is also welcome in an era in which touring shows sometimes get less than a week, and the great news is that this is indeed a perfect, faithful, and exciting production of the Stephen Schwartz/Winnie Holzman musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel.

Of course, the whole thing is a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West, here named Elphaba and played this time around by a truly dynamic Lissa deGuzman, who captures the audience from her first appearance and then just gets better. This version of the story centers on her unlikely friendship with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (here just Glinda the Good, played by a very winning Jennafer Newberry). Bitter rivals at the start, they find in each other a true friend they both desperately need, and their secret BFF status propels most of the action.

My memory may be faulty—it often is, and I have not seen Wicked since the early days of its first Chicago run with Ana Gasteyer as Elphaba—but I believe that this production has lost absolutely none of what makes this show so special: the wonderful clockwork sets (here enhanced by projections that never detract from the three-dimensional set, only give it more depth), the creative costuming, the powerful music, the enticing dance scenes (Jordan Litz’s “Dancing Through Life” really comes alive here), the flying—oh, goodness, the monkeys and of course “Defying Gravity”—not to mention that central relationship.

Both deGuzman and Newberry make their characters thoroughly believable: the former as the green witch who starts out shy and idealistic but ends up embracing her “wickedness” when she learns the truth about the government of Oz, and the latter as the spoiled, entitled princess who learns that the world is not black and white—or green and blonde. In different ways, they both catch the attention of Litz’s Fiyero, who starts out lazy and overly full of himself but discovers his own true character along the way. Also notable are Natalie Venetia Belcon’s manipulative weather witch Madame Morrible, whose comically mangled verbiage is echoed by Glinda and other Ozians, and John Bolton as the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” that fraud from Kansas who somehow rose to power in a land where real magic exists. But it is the relationship between the leads that people come for, one that starts off by declaring their “loathing” for each other and ends up by each acknowledging that knowing the other has changed her “For Good.” Not even a fleeting bout of jealousy from Glinda when Fiyero chooses her green friend can really break their bond (though it can and does certainly create complications).

For a large percentage of the audience (at least those over, say, six), this was not their first visit to Oz. Many people wore large green buttons (handed out at the entrance) that proudly declared that this was their 3rd, 4th, or even 5th time seeing the show. Other buttons proclaimed that the wearer has “finally” come to see it, but it was hard to differentiate from their reactions which ones were in awe of the spectacle and music for the first time and which were joyfully indulging in a nostalgic experience. Didn’t matter: I’m pretty sure everyone ended up pleased and thoroughly entertained. I didn’t get my ticket until yesterday (and the woman in front of me literally bought hers just before the show!), and I am glad I did. This is a wonderful play and an excellent production.

Wicked runs through Dec 4, at Nederlander Theatre, 24 Randolph St, Chicago. For tickets and information, please visit BroadwayinChicago.com or call (312) 977-1710. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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