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Defying Gravity

Barbara & Scott in praise of Wicked, in despair over Six Dance Lessons, and in harmony with Connie Pachl and Bill Daugherty

Joel Grey and Idina Menzel in Wicked
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Broadway musicals are to theater critics as piñatas are to Mexican children: Just beat 'em with a stick and hope that something valuable survives the assault. The most recent musical to take a critical beating was Wicked, a sort of prequel to The Wizard of Oz.

Wicked isn't as serious as Trumbo (yet both shows are about witch-hunts), nor is it as light and frivolous as Hairspray (though it does have lots of laughs). Rather, it's an ambitious musical intended to satisfy both adults and children, with strong themes in a surprisingly complex book by Winnie Holzman. Like very few other shows now on Broadway, it has a beautiful, soaring pop score by Stephen Schwartz. And it has Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, Tony Award-worthy stars who carry the show to glory. In toto (we couldn't resist), there are so many wonderful things in Wicked that to dismiss it -- as so many critics have done -- strikes us as perverse.

Sure, everybody has different taste, although there seems to be universal agreement that Chenoweth is perfection as Glinda. Menzel isn't too far behind in the critical sweepstakes as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. It's interesting to note that Stephen Schwartz, the maestro behind such admired musicals as Godspell and Pippin, has never had a critically acclaimed show on Broadway; rather, those shows were hits thanks to grass roots audience support and the affection of musical theater aficionados. (Even the score of the failed Schwartz show The Baker's Wife has a passionate following.)

Wicked boasts songs with honest-to-God melodies and smart, sophisticated lyrics. (How rare is that?) Numbers like "Defying Gravity" and "For Good" will become anthems heard for many years to come. "I'm Not That Girl" is a heartbreaking ballad; "Popular" and "Wonderful" are brightly yet piercingly satiric. And we're pleased to tell you that the show's book is equal in quality to the score. Throwaway lines that get big laughs are peppered throughout the script: When Idina Menzel's Elphaba scornfully yells at the unseen Dorothy something along the lines of "How could you steal a dead woman's shoes? Were you raised in a barn?" the Gershwin Theatre rocks with laughter. Wicked leads into the story we all know and love in extremely satisfying ways, including the creations of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow.

Even more impressive is the dark underpinning of the plot in which Oz is paralleled with 1930s Germany, complete with a "scapegoat" with horns. This scapegoat is, in fact, a goat; the horns are real, not the imaginary horns of a demonized Jew, but the meaning is clear as the once proud and intelligent animals of Oz are robbed of their ability to speak. The Wizard (Joel Grey) believes in "The Big Lie" and he practices what he preaches, making everyone believe that the show's heroine, the Wicked Witch of the West, is evil.

Joe Mantello has directed a big, splashy production with eye-candy costumes by Susan Hilferty, dramatic lighting by Kenneth Posner, and a provocative set by Eugene Lee. The show also has a heart, a brain, and the nerve to have opened on Broadway.


Mark Hamill and Polly Bergen
in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Six Dance Lessons Too Many

There are so many gifted actors in New York that it's painful to see someone in a Broadway show who just can't do the job. In Richard Alfieri's two-hander Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, having one inept actor is like taking off in a plane with just enough fuel to get you airborne but not enough to land. Mark Hamill, as the dance instructor in this sentimental story of friendship and redemption, is so charmless and so hideously over the top that the show doesn't even survive his first scene. It's truly amazing that Polly Bergen, as the recipient of Hamill's dance lessons, manages to give a grounded, moving, and utterly effective performance under these circumstances.

The play has problems of its own. In this tale of an angry young man's weekly dance lessons with an attractive, lonely retiree in Florida, the "surprise" revelations about these two people are far from surprising. And the structure of the piece -- which calls for the constant repetition of quarrels, false exits, and phone call shtick from the downstairs neighbor -- quickly becomes tiresome in the extreme. Thank heaven for Bergen, who delivers her lines with graceful restraint; she'll break your heart with one offhand comment that speaks volumes about the way we protect ourselves from hurt. Also worthy of praise is the work of costume designer Helen Butler. After that, it's Taps -- and we're not talking tap shoes.


Two For The Road

When a couple of cabaret performers get together to do an act, the result is often a stitched-together combo of their respective solo shows with a few duets thrown in to try to hide the seams. Happily, the pairing of Connie Pachl and Bill Daugherty is designed to avoid that pitfall, as is reflected in its title: Let's Duet: A Celebration of Friendship and Song. Pachl and Daugherty perform the occasional solo number here but this is primarily an act in which two accomplished vocalists sing together, to each other, or about each other.

Connie Pachl and Bill Daugherty
With supportive musical direction by pianist Doyle Newmeyer and the elegant addition of Jim Conant on guitar, the show is a musical treat that runs a rich gamut of songs from show tunes to country, from pop to comedy. Pachl and Daugherty are adept at every musical style, their voices achieving a musical rapport that matches their obvious affection for each other. Pachl's warm and winsome voice recalls that of Nancy LaMott, but it has a more playful edge. Daugherty, with his light Irish tenor, is like Coca-Cola in that he has some secret formula for putting over songs. To continue the Coke comparison, Daugherty has an effervescent personality and is rarely flat.

When these two join together to sing "Beautiful Pair" (Geld-Udell, from Shenandoah) and couple it with "Sleepy Man" (Waldman-Uhry, from The Robber Bridegroom), it's as delicate and lovely as anything you'll ever hear. For dramatic impact, they deliver "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (Harburg-Gorney, from New Americana) coupled with "Remember My Forgotten Man" (Dubin-Warren, from The Golddiggers of 1933). And for sheer lunacy, there's an inspired "Broadway Medley" opus that includes Daugherty singing the role of Maria in West Side Story.

This is a special show that captures a two decade-long friendship with good taste, good cheer, and great voices. It's playing at Don't Tell Mama every Friday in November at 6:30pm.