Hayley Podschun and Jennifer DiNoia in Broadway Across America's Wicked
It's been more than 40 years since Kermit the Frog lamented that it's not easy being green. As the Muppet explains in the 1970 song "Bein' Green," the color is the pits because "it seems you blend in with so many ordinary things." But by the end of the song, he finds lots to like about his hue. If only the same were true for Elphaba, the broccoli-colored witch in the musical Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz.
Ten years after her Broadway debut, Elphaba still hasn't come to terms with her complexion, and her problem is sticking out, not blending in. Audiences don't seem to mind her unresolved issues, though. This adaptation of Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, about how The Wonderful Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West developed a bad reputation, has been seen by millions of people and continues to break records in the ticket-sales department. Last night's show at Overture Hall drew many repeat viewers, some who saw Broadway Across America's last iteration in Madison in 2010 and some who've seen productions in New York or Chicago. The show's Overture run continues through June 9.
Even if you haven't seen Wicked, you've probably encountered some of its elements. The original show's stars -- Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel -- have appeared on Glee, as have songs like "Defying Gravity." It's hard to separate Chenoweth from her character, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, but Hayley Podschun, last night's Glinda, certainly tried. She seemed to take more cues from Elle Woods, the bubbly, privileged and insanely girly protagonist of Legally Blonde. And the "wicked" Elphaba (Jennifer DiNoia) bears a certain resemblance to Vivian Kensington, Elle's brainy, dark-haired nemesis, who seems chilly and fashion-challenged by comparison. Podschun emphasizes this contrast by giving her voice a nasally timbre, and DiNoia's naturally warm voice helps her character feel sympathetic, a quality that's eluded several Elphabas past. For example, The New York Times complained that Chenoweth's Glinda was so showy that she seemed more important than the story's "surprisingly colorless" Elphaba.
Thankfully, Elphaba stands out in this production, especially during numbers such as "No Good Deed." DiNoia knows how to command attention. Even when she's the only performer onstage, her presence seems to fill the entire space. Her excellent enunciation is also noteworthy, though not a surprise considering that she's also a voice actor. (You can hear her in the new animated movie Epic.) When the ensemble grew loud and boisterous, her voice cut through the hullabaloo, focusing attention on her character's courage and smarts.
Humor, especially physical comedy, is one of Podschun's biggest strengths. Giggling maniacally and flutter-kicking her legs at top speed, she had the crowd in stitches during "Popular," a zany number where she vows to give Elphaba a makeover, then ogles her own reflection in a hand mirror. Though she's clearly a talented singer, especially when hitting and holding high notes, the intentionally tinny delivery made it hard to determine how she might sound as a Mary Poppins or Eliza Doolittle.
The other stars of the show were the scenic, lighting and costume designers. I still can't figure out how one cast member's belly was flat one moment and nine months pregnant a split-second later. It's magical when Elphaba hovers over the crowd in a braid of rainbows, and the ornate outfits Emerald City dwellers sport may make you green with envy.
My biggest complaint regards the way the story is told. I decided to see Wicked because I'm a fan of Winnie Holzman's writing, particularly on the TV show My So-Called Life. Precise details and believable motivations make her characters spring to life in a way that inspires empathy and, in many cases, laughter. There are many clever turns of phrase in Wicked, like my favorite: "I happen to be deeply shallow." But messages about scapegoating and the nature of truth are delivered too directly. These are important themes to explore in an era of terrorism and web-driven rumors, but it's hard to see the characters as anything but characters.