The wickedly enchanting Wicked musical

SOUNDS FAMILIAR - Baby A. Gil - The Philippine Star

Elphaba should have met Kermit. She and the Frog could have given each other a shoulder to cry on and shared the sad lament of It’s Not Easy Being Green. You see, Elphaba was born green and grew up in the Land of Oz when she actually belonged to the Emerald City, where everything is a gorgeous, sparkling green. As a result of her being green and different in Oz, Elphaba was bullied and called wicked all her life.

This is the premise behind the tale of Wicked, the musical that is playing its final and extended run this week at the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The show opened last Jan. 22 and has been playing to packed houses ever since. It is such an enchanting experience that has turned Manila into loving green and singing Defying Gravity.

Wicked is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, who was obviously inspired by the Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. The children’s classic tells the story of the adventures of the girl Dorothy and her dog Toto in the Land of Oz to which they are transported by a cyclone. There they meet a Scarecrow, who is in search of a brain, a Tin Woodsman who wants a heart and a Cowardly Lion in need of courage. Dorothy, on the other hand, just wants to go home.

They go off to the Emerald City believing that the Wizard of Oz can grant them their requests. But while Glinda, the Good Witch is always around to help and save them from harm, there is also the Wicked Witch of the West wreaking havoc on their plans and on everybody in her path. She wants the ruby slippers that Dorothy is wearing and she is wicked and green. She is Elphaba in Wicked.

Wicked seeks to bring unknown facets of the tale of Oz to light. It is a prequel and a sequel and also runs parallel to The Wizard of Oz. Here is how Elphaba was born green and how she came to be called, wicked. Here is how she became friends with Glinda, who became the Good Witch. Here, too, is her romance with the boy Fiyero. The origins of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, the Cowardly Lion and even of the Kansas cyclone are all explained.

The result is a convoluted play that tries to sew up everything to provide a beginning and an end and an inner story aligned with The Wizard of Oz. This proves difficult. With supposed facts heaped one on top of the other in rapid-fire fashion, so much is lost on anybody who has never read the book or seen the much-loved MGM movie that starred Judy Garland. 

But the sights and sounds of Wicked are so absolutely delightful. With spectacular sets, beautiful songs, a wizard, witches who travel on broomsticks and inside bubbles, spells and winged monkeys, you can just junk its beginnings and enjoy it for what it is.

This is what has been happening on Broadway these past 10 years and in other parts of the world where Wicked has played and continues to play. It is no wonder then that it has been dubbed a “cultural phenomenon,” “the best musical of the decade” and had been Broadway’s No. 1 selling show for an unprecedented nine years. It is no wonder, too, that Manila has fallen under its spell.

The great thing going for Wicked at the CCP is that what we have is a competent touring company of creative people committed to bringing their best to wherever they go. So audiences from all over the world get to watch an almost exact copy of what is playing today on Broadway or the West End. And they brought in everything, from that huge dragon on the proscenium to a lion’s tail.

But of course, Wicked here would never have been as fun and entertaining without the talented cast. The musical has two of the best roles ever written for singing actresses and unforgettable original performers in Idina Menzel as Elphaba and Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda, who really took Broadway by storm. 

In this touring production, Jemma Rix as the green, smart and misunderstood Elphaba and Suzie Mathers as the blonde, popular, mostly scheming but also good-hearted Glinda have perfected their takes on the witches. They are believable as both besties and rivals, and make it easy for everybody to relate to the plight of those girls. It also helps that they have the pipes required by the songs.

Long before the staging became an elaborate showcase of engineering and modern technology, the stage musical was mainly all about the songs. The songs are by what we remember the shows. And there are melodies by which you will remember Wicked.

Composed by Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz, who also did Godspell and Pippin’, the songs you will be humming after watching Wicked are Popular, already a hit by Ariana Grande, the duet For Good and one of the most sensational first-act closers ever written, Defying Gravity. Believe me, this number alone is already worth the admission price.

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