National tour of “Wicked” delivers visual spectacle and strong performances


Joan Marcus

Glinda (Jennafer Newberry, left) and Elphaba (Lissa deGuzman) reveal the origins of their friendship turned rivalry as seen in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Though Broadway in New York City is experiencing historic closures of long-running musicals like “Phantom of the Opera,” Chicagoans can rest easy knowing that the second city’s most popular musical isn’t going anywhere. Let the joyous news be spread:  “Wicked,” has returned to the James M. Nederlander theater through Dec. 4 as part of the production’s National Tour. While the newly reopened Chicago production lifts most of its directorial and production queues from the original Broadway production and does not make many attempts to add new flair, “Wicked” at the Nederlander is still a crowd-pleasing spectacle with dazzling costumes and a pair of wickedly wonderful female leads.

For those unfamiliar with the show, “Wicked” is a reimagining of “The Wizard of Oz.” It follows Elphaba (Lissa deGuzman), the soon-to-be Wicked Witch of the West, as she grows from timid schoolgirl to the cackling, broomstick-toting baddie who would eventually cross paths with Dorothy Gale. During her time at Shiz University, Elphaba uncovers a sinister plot involving the subjugation of talking animals and forms an unlikely bond with the ever-peppy Galinda (Jennafer Newberry). Together, the duo journey to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard and discover the truth behind what’s happening to the animals of Oz.

As far as musical theater goes, “Wicked” is about as mainstream and audience-friendly as it can get. With a familiar story, colorful characters and tunes like “Defying Gravity” that have long since transcended the realm of theatre and embedded themselves squarely in pop culture, this is a show made more for tourists and casual theatergoers than hardcore theater fans. While the elaborate costumes and sets make “Wicked” an undeniable visual spectacle, the book from Winnie Holzman still refuses to explore its multifaceted characters beyond surface trappings.. This particular production’s unwillingness to deviate from the familiar direction of the original Broadway staging is an indication that producers may view the show as a reliable cash cow rather than a meaningful piece of theater.

Though the ensemble’s voices were strong, the sound mixing sometimes struggled to properly do justice to the vocals. This was particularly frustrating for big tentpole, full-cast numbers like “One Short Day” and “Dancing Through Life.” Those small mishaps brought down the energy of the entire production. While deGuzman and Newberry certainly have the vocal chops to fill some of the most demanding female leads in musical theater — between the iconic top F in “Defying Gravity” to Galinda’s frequent delves into operatic singing — the microphones and sound mixing did both women a disservice. We can only hope that this problem will be ironed out later into the show’s run.

Beyond the quietness of the microphones, though, “Wicked’s” technical aptitude would cause even longtime fans to struggle to differentiate it from the full-scale Broadway production. The Emerald City’s lighting is appropriately dazzling, and the massive mechanical puppet the Wizard masquerades behind is an impressive feat that dominates onstage. The costumes, too, were particularly effective, and the hair and makeup design, which is another holdover from Broadway, brings a whimsical charm to help pay homage to the musical’s old Hollywood roots.

Perhaps the most memorable element of this production, though, is Jennafer Newberry as Galinda, a role built to scene-steal if ever there was one. Though trying to follow in the footsteps of a role originated by Kristin Chenwoeth is no small task, Newberry brings all the manic energy, powerhouse vocals and unexpected vulnerability required to create an effective, fully realized portrait of Galinda that goes beyond just a perky blonde in a pink dress. 

Similarly strong was deGuzman as Elphaba. While she may be the straight man of the duo, she certainly got her fair share of laughs, particularly in an interlude during “Dancing Through Life.” Rounding out the love triangle was Jordan Litz’s hunky Fiyero, a benevolent Gaston type who continues to be frustratingly underwritten, but whom Litz nonetheless made memorable with his physical comedy chops and chemistry with deGuzman.

While the National Tour of “Wicked” may not be taking any creative risks, a trio of strong performers make for an impressive if by-the-numbers staging of a beloved new-age Broadway hit.