There’s No Place like OZ: A Theater Review of Chicago’s Wicked

If you follow Broadway at all then you have probably heard of the play “Wicked.” If you haven’t then you should know that it tells the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West became so and how Glinda became the Good Witch. As you might imagine, things are not exactly as they seem.

The movie is based on a book, but I have run into people who have read the book and many of them have said it was confusing and rambling and just not very good. If you are a reader of that book, I beg you to put it aside and disregard it and go and see this play.

It is currently playing here in Chicago at the Ford Oriental Theatre in the new Chicago Theater District. That means it is right around the corner from the Chicago Theater, right near the old Marshall Field building and just down the street from the Daley Center. At the very least, you need to go just to check out the Oriental Theater.

Something happened to these glorious old movie houses. At one time you went downtown and you saw the first-run movies at these huge houses with giant screens and huge auditoriums. The Chicago Theater was like that and my dad likes to remind everyone how he saw “The Godfather” there.

These beautiful places ran into hard times until someone decided to save them. The Oriental was saved by the Disney folks when they were looking for a place to put “The Lion King” here in Chicago. That play has come and gone, and “Wicked” seems to have set up permanent residence here.

The story of “Wicked” tells how the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, was born with green skin and dark hair. She is, as you might imagine, ostracized throughout her life as being a freak. Her father is the ruler over Munchkinland. She is sent to and exclusive school but her main task it to watch over her beautiful, but tragic, sister Nessarose. However, while she is there she is discovered to possess great powers with magic and the headmistress immediately takes an interest.

She also meets Galinda (later Glinda) who is blonde and perky and from a family of privilege. They are accidentally thrown together as roommates. They hate each other at first. Then, slowly, they become friends. Then, events conspire to tear them apart and to have one declared wicked while the other is promoted to good.

In between this plot are a lot of songs, some amazing stage effects and some powerful and delightful performances. This is a play that, if you are like me, you wanted to see again almost as soon as the performance was over. It was like visiting a place you just didn’t want to leave.

Dee Roscioli plays Elphaba and I have to wonder if this woman every manages to get all of the green makeup off of her. The one scene she does in a sleeveless gown shows you that this is more than just some green makeup on her face and hands. I have been told that a woman named Stephanie Block, who toured with this play, was a better Elphaba. I didn’t see Stephanie, and I am glad, because I thought Roscioli was fantastic.

Erin Mackey steals the show as Glinda. My God, the way she performs this is hilarious. In the performance I saw, during her singing of the song “Popular” she nearly broke herself up with the silliness of her performance. She delivers each and every line with passion and total commitment. She deserves to become a star.

Of particular note, also, is Derrick Williams as Fiyero. I was told by the person I was with that he was better looking, better acting and better singing than any of those he had seen before. This was my first time seeing the play, and I thought he was great.

The set is amazing. The time when Elphaba lifts herself into the air is dazzling with lights and an amazingly huge black cape. It is a truly transcendent moment and worthy of anything you may have seen in “Les Miserables” or “Phantom of the Opera.”

There is a giant and moving dragon to top off the stage. The lights that burst into life when the main characters visit the Emerald City took my by surprise. In short, it was a helluva lot of fun.

Watch this play and look for the origins of everything that you remember from “The Wizard of Oz.” There are the ruby slippers. There is the Wicked Witch of the East. There are the origins of the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion. All of it is there and told cleverly and never in a truly silly manner.

“Wicked” seems to have set up for a very long run here in Chicago. It is also playing other places and continues to tour. I recommend you see it no matter who does it. However, if you can make it to Chicago and check out the Oriental Theater, Erin Mackey’s performance alone is worth the effort.