Wicked Good or Wicked Bad?
When I was a teenager — in a time/galaxy far, far away — and I got together with my friends, one of them would inevitably come out with an opinion on some issue or another, be it a new soft drink or a movie. “It was wicked,” he’d say. The rest of us would immediately ask in chorus, “Wicked good or wicked bad?” That’s because the adjective “wicked” in the ’60s took on another completely different meaning from the one it traditionally held. Of course, “wicked” could still describe something bad, as it had for centuries. But, suddenly, “wicked” now could also mean something really wonderful — though, under those circumstances, it was usually pronounced “Wick-KEDDD” in a guttural voice that conveyed a good deal of respect.
I thought about the two meanings of “wicked” while watching Wicked, the new musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, which was in turn based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and, more than tangentially, the 1939 semi-musical classic film. I could use the word “wicked” to describe so many parts of this show — as in “wicked good,” “wicked bad,” and other meanings. To wit:
Entering the Theater: A wicked good experience, for the proscenium arch is covered with a myriad of objects that show the inner workings of the Land of Oz, all topped by a dragon’s head in dead-center. Only after the scrim goes up will you realize that the set is not wicked good, although not quite wicked bad. It looks like most of the money went into the dressing around the stage rather than what’s on it.
The Opening Number, “No One Mourns the Wicked”: Wicked bad, terribly unmelodious and somber-sounding. If everyone in Oz sang the joyous “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead” when the comparatively benign Wicked Witch of the East died, why do they drone such a doleful song when their more frightful nemesis, The Wicked Witch of the West, is killed?
Kristin Chenoweth’s Entrance: Wicked good. But you’d expect that from Glinda the Good Witch, given the way she entered in the 1939 film.
Exposition That Tells Us How a Baby (the Future Wicked Witch of the West) Named Elphaba was Born Green: Wicked good, especially if you read Maguire’s novel, which is a wicked turgid and wicked boring affair (printed in wicked bad typeface, I might add). Winnie Holzman has condensed Maguire wickedly well here and throughout the show.
The Second Song: Wicked bad for only one reason. It’s called “Dear Old Shiz,” which refers to the University that both Glinda and Elphaba attends. But “Shiz” is a funny word that sounds perilously like an utterance that’s not often heard in polite company. All we needed to make things wicked better was for set designer Eugene Lee to add a horizontal banner that said “Shiz University” in order to make it clear that Shiz was a school.
Elphaba’s First Song, “The Wizard and I”: Wicked wonderful beyond belief. Not since Ariel sang her first song in The Little Mermaid has there been such a bolt-of-lightning moment when we immediately and squarely land on a character’s side. That Idina Menzel delivers the number so astonishingly only adds to the glorious experience. What a wicked great performance this lady is giving! She earns her odd billing over the title. (Notice that she’s over Chenoweth, but to the right where your eye might not immediately notice her. That’s a nice metaphor for a character’s who an outsider.)
Chenoweth’s Entrance After Menzel Finishes “The Wizard and I”: Wicked terrific because she suddenly has a hard act to follow, but this Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World Award winner isn’t worried. She knows that she’s got quite a bit to bring to the table and that there’s great pleasure to be had in working on a hot stage, as Ethel Waters used to say when she followed a castmate who’d just scored big. Chenoweth’s in wicked wonderful voice (how many octaves does she have?) and shows a wicked wit in her dialogue.
The Supporting Cast: Wicked sensational. Carole Shelley as Madame Morrible, the Dean of Shiz Students, is wicked unctuous in the way that only Shelley can be. Perfect casting. Norbert Leo Butz as Fiyero is wicked excellent (isn’t he always?) as the lad who’s torn between two loves for he lets us see into the heart of his dilemma. Michelle Federer as Nessarose, Elphaba’s sister, is wicked vulnerable as a lass who lives life in a wheelchair. (Thank you, Winnie Holzman, for not making her armless as Maguire did.) Christopher Fitzgerald is wicked adorable (isn’t he always?) as the boy who unwittingly allows Nessarose to believe that he loves her — and who will pay a big price for doing so. And as the Wizard, Joel Grey is wicked successful in showing us the three dimensions of his character — though he doesn’t turn out to be, as the Wizard alleged in the movie, a good man who’s a bad wizard. Speaking further of Grey:
The Wizard’s Line of Dialogue in Which He Deftly Pronounces the Word “Philanthropists”: A wicked bad oversight, don’t you think, considering that the Wizard we’ve known up till now — the one who said, “Back where I come from, there are men who do nothing all day but good deeds. They are called phil…er…phil…er…er….good-deed-doers” — had such trouble with that word in the 1939 film? And while I won’t put this quite in the same oversight category: Maguire took pains to establish that Elphaba uses oil to bathe and spruce up because, of course, she is H20-challenged. Holzman does give Madame Morrible a nice moment that reminds us that Elphaba can’t go near water, but I would have liked a mention of the oil bathing.
Susan Hilferty’s Costumes: Wicked delightful. She’s built on the fashions we came to know in the film, adding accoutrements and accessories to make each outfit distinctively her own. Every production number is a fashion parade — though each could have been more than that. Which brings us to:
Wayne Cilento’s Choreography: Wicked ordinary, uninteresting, and unengaging. Not one dance comes anywhere near becoming a wicked showstopper. To think that Holzman worked so hard (and successfully) to give a wicked new spin on the language of Oz; you’ll hear a number of made-up words that add a syllable here, a syllable there. What a shame that Cilento couldn’t find an equally distinctive style of movement for the Ozians. (As director, Joe Mantello fares wicked better. It’s not inspired direction but Mantello gets the job done.)
The Appearance of Dorothy Gale: Wicked disappointing. Did Schwartz, Holzman, and the other powers-that-be feel that, because another current musical features a Judy Garland stand-in, they couldn’t give us a second one?
The Appearance of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion: The first two are wicked well-used, though they don’t quite jibe with the story that we all know and love. As for the Lion, we never really see him. That’s too bad because, in Act I, Holzman sets up a later appearance for him; but it comes to almost nothing. Had he appeared, we all would have cooed in delighted recognition.
Potential to Sell Tickets: Wicked solid. There’s a strong sense of excitement in the air all night long.
Potential to Sell Tickets to PETA Members: Even more wicked solid, for they’ll all love the “be kind to animals” theme that permeates the piece.
Overall Impact of Holzman’s Book: Wicked fine. She also shows a wicked good sense of humor, which was sadly missing in Maguire’s tome. Who’d have expected the line “There’s no place like home” to rock the house with laughter? It does so because Holzman knows how to use it. And what a sharp, satisfying ending she’s devised!
Overall Impact of Schwartz’s Score: Wicked erratic. Chenoweth’s “Popular” gets off to a wicked delicious start but short-circuits before it dribbles to an unbuttoned ending. Elphaba and the Wizard’s “Wonderful” also has a wicked terrific beginning but, unfortunately, doesn’t build as well as it might. However, I’m grateful for “Defying Gravity,” the socko song that helps the first act curtain be so impressive; and “For Good,” in which Schwartz uses some impressive wordplay to make his point, set to a wicked dynamite melody.
Overall Impact of Wicked: I know I’ve nit-picked, and though there are nits to pick, it’s time for me to say “Wick-KEDDD” in a guttural voice that conveys a good deal of respect.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]