“Wicked” at Hobby Center
It’s not surprising that the current touring production of Wicked is packing them in at the Hobby Center downtown for the next few weeks. Be assured, this musical combines archetypal images of the beloved tale of The Wizard of Oz with a series of jaw dropping set pieces. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, and the book by Winnie Holzman.
Wicked works as a revisionist version of Oz yet it is so much more. Literally, who has not seen The Wizard of Oz?
Set before the events of Wizard of Oz, Wicked takes the character of the Wicked Witch of the West and turns her into a sympathetic personality. Elphaba (played in the production by Emily Koch) is green in a white world. The play starts as she attends university in the nation of Oz. Through a series of mismatched events, Elphaba ends up roommates with Glinda (played by Amanda Jane Cooper).
It ain’t easy being green and Elphaba receives the brunt of racist hatred because of her skin color. Yet Elphaba has a set of technical skills that include scholastic accolades and before she knows it is called before the great Oz to be acknowledged for her academic smarts. Glinda is a spoiled blonde brat (think Legally Blonde) who eventually drops her false façade and actually befriends Elphaba.
Elphaba is merely a pawn in an increasing fascist country that wants to take away the rights of animals who can speak. Elphaba alone can decipher ancient texts of magic. When she casts a spell that gives monkeys the power of flight, it is only to help them escape their oppressors. Likewise, a professor at the college who is a goat faces discrimination because of his animal origins. It’s almost as if Wicked diverts into H. G. Wells territory. After all, Wells wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau as an anti-vivisectionist tract. The Land of Oz is being transformed from an idyllic nation where humans and animals are equal and live in harmony to a country of haves and have-nots.
Brief snippets of The Wizard of Oz mythology pop up – we see Dorothy in silhouette for all of ten seconds, and the Cowardly Lion makes an entrance stage left with only his tail being seen. The emotional ending of Wicked seems to suggest the equivalent of Adam and Eve being banned from the Garden of Eden.
The production boosts the highest level of stage values, whether it’s transitions from scene to scene or technical effects. One scene has a laser-enhanced sequence of green rain that in and of itself is a mesmerizing moment. Blackouts always reveal new aspects of the play, and the arrival of the Masque of the Wizard demands serious attention.
“Wicked” plays at the downtown Hobby Center (800 Bagby Street) until August 14.