As a self-professed musical theater kid who grew up in the 2000s, I have a pretty deep connection with “Wicked.” My dad liked it as well, so whenever it was in town we would try to get tickets. I’ve probably seen the musical five times – including last night, when I saw the Regions Bank Broadway in Atlanta production at the Fox Theatre that’s running until July 30.
Feeling nostalgic, I asked my dad to be my plus one. At this point in the musical’s history (it debuted on Broadway in 2003), at any show there’s a real divide between those in the audience who have seen it upwards of three times (like me) and those who have never seen it at all. Standing in line for the bathroom, I could almost feel the woman behind me vibrating with excitement as she explained the bare bones of the plot to her friend who fell into the latter category. My dad and I sat next to a woman who had also never seen it before, and we both told her how much we wished we could experience it for the first time.
But as soon as the curtain rises, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve never seen “Wicked’ or if you’ve seen it 100 times. The magic and strength of Stephen Schwartz’s music is still as potent today as it was 20 years ago, the story just as winkingly sly and emotionally resonant. And with two dynamite leading ladies at the helm, this production is not one to miss.
If you haven’t seen “Wicked” before, it’s a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” told from the perspective of the witches we meet in that timeless story. Before Dorothy ever came to Oz, Elphaba (or the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (before she became known as Glinda the Good Witch), attended the same school and against all odds, became friends. The musical follows them through their unlikely friendship as they face corrupt government officials, love triangles, and ultimately, Elphaba’s downfall.
If you have seen “Wicked” before, the production at the Fox is probably exactly as you remember it – a stage backdropped by a giant clock mechanism, gears ominously shifting as we move toward our inevitable conclusion. The costumes are eccentric, almost steampunk in their design. All of this is pretty par for the course for any “Wicked” production – what makes them unique are the performances.
As Elphaba and Glinda, Olivia Valli and Celia Hottenstein are sensational. Glinda is a very physical role, and Hottenstein dials into the slapstick, zanily awkward comedy of the part with ease. She has an uncanny ability to appear slightly out of control of her body, which in itself requires a good bit of physical control that she wields as poise in the parts of the show that delve into the witches’ later years.
Valli informs the other half of the show’s odd couple sensibility with a humorous physicality of her own, her wry delivery balancing out Hottenstein’s bubbly effervescence. The easy back and forth between the two extends to their vocal prowess as well, their voices slotting together effortlessly on gorgeous harmonies. The control both of these performers exude over each part of their voice – head, mix, belt, vibrato – is unyielding. When Elphaba rises to sing “Defying Gravity” suspended in the air, backed by a stunning lighting effect that makes it seem as though she’s taking up the entire stage, Valli delivers a passionate vocal performance that makes a show-stopping number just that much more jaw-dropping.
But while its leads are fantastic, the show would be nothing without the stellar ensemble behind them. Every harmony, every crescendo, every note is so painstakingly tight, even as the performers whirl around the stage. The ensemble is what truly brings Schwartz’s compositions to life, delivering a triumphant backdrop to a beloved show.