In April of 2005, the first national tour of “Wicked” that had opened in Toronto only a month earlier came to Chicago for what was to be a six-week run. Broadway In Chicago was already five years old at the time, but the game-changer was BIC’s brainstorm to get into place a Chicago production of “Wicked” that would stay here as long as audience demand would allow after that initial six-week run had ended and the national tour had moved on, essentially providing an unlimited “open run.” Four-and-a-half years later when “Wicked” finally closed in January of last year, it had broken every area box-office record. Meanwhile, that same template was also used for the Chicago run of “Jersey Boys,” which also enjoyed a multi-year if shorter run here; BIC had hoped to duplicate that same success with “Billy Elliot,” which only lasted seven months.
As “Wicked” returns for a holiday run and we have a fresh look at the show, it is worth pondering why this particular play broke every record here while other shows have failed to capture the public imagination in quite the same way. To begin with, unlike “Jersey Boys” or “Billy Elliot,” “Wicked” is family friendly. As “wicked” as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West may be perceived to be, she is not a potty mouth like Frankie Valli and friends, nor worse, “Billy Elliot,” where you actually have pre-pubescent boys on stage dropping f-bombs left and right, kids actually scripted to swear in front of other kids in the audience.
Elphaba and her friend Galinda—later Glinda the Good Witch of the North—are acting out a relationship as old as the oldest written mythos on record, the ancient Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh,” where Gilgamesh and Enkidu begin as rivals but in their attempts to best one another, develop greater respect and even affection for one another as the best of friends. Together, such friends can do anything, a timeless and wonderful message.
In what remains primarily a patriarchal culture, two young girls develop into independent and strong-willed young women who know and get exactly what they want. That one happens to be “green,” as in fill-in-the-blank as to whatever one is that the rest of us may not understand or accept, and you have quite a powerful allegory about differences between us. When Elphaba first arrives in the all-green Emerald City, for instance, she feels strangely at home and expresses that it is the first time in her life that she has not felt “green,” i.e., different. This is a sentiment reminiscent of the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” where Malcolm X writes that when he finally made the Islamic Hajj to Mecca and was simply one among the masses of various races that really were all there as equals, it was the first time in his life that he was not made to be conscious of being black, something he had never experienced before in his life in America.
Of course, none of this would matter if the show itself did not unspool in a compelling manner, which it does, nor without an incredibly uplifting—often virtually operatic—score by Broadway veteran Stephen Schwartz that features songs that are character driven in the best sense and which push the drama forward. Not to mention a spectacular use of stagecraft that includes flying witches, onstage wizardry and magic. In fact, the success of “Wicked” coinciding with the “Harry Potter” phenomenon is also significant, as “Wicked” indeed offers a live-action feminist alternative world of magic which, judging from the myriads of young girls that still flock to this show en masse, is a huge part of the attraction.
For those who do and who may be making one in a series of return trips to this incarnation of Oz, does this return production at the Cadillac Palace live up to the quality of the version that took over the Ford Oriental Theatre for so long? Happily, the casting is actually superior in that the singing is stronger than some of the various leads of the Chicago production. (Dennis Polkow)
Through January 23, 2011, Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, (800)775-2000. $35-$105.