Could any first-act finale have more visual and emotional punch than the extravagantly beautiful final two minutes of “Wicked”? At intermission of Thursday’s press-night performance at the Saroyan Theatre, I Tweeted that I wanted to hug the lighting designer.
Not to spoil anything for those who haven’t yet experienced this gorgeously produced and emotionally soaring Broadway show, but the song “Defying Gravity” turns light into something that seems tangible and material, with volume and substance — illumination with weight and heft, as substantial and big as a mountain. Plus: that last, gorgeous blackout, punctuated by a final split-second fadeout on the face of the defiantly green Wicked Witch of the West — the timing is exquisite, the rush of light and dark all encompassing.
I’ve seen “Wicked” three times now, and I swoon at this moment each time. The only other comparison I can draw in terms of the power of theater is the first-act finale of the (old) version of “Les Miserables,” with that last rippling fadeout to black on the big red waving flag. It is supremely satisfying to be in the presence of such confident visual precision. (In movies today, special effects are lavished upon our eyeballs so unrelentingly and with such visual digital sophistication that it can all seem rather ho-hum. But to witness live the stagecraft of a show like “Wicked” remains awe-inducing.)
When the national tour of “Wicked” first played in Fresno in 2011, I noted how it simply upped the ante for all other touring shows that come through the Saroyan. It’s Broadway quality. (With near New York prices to match, of course.) The second visit of the tour, which opened Wednesday, has maintained that high standard in every regard. “Wicked” is still wicked good.
By now most people know the premise of the show — these are the “untold stories of the witches of Oz,” with a focus on the odd-couple pairing of Glinda and Elphaba, who meet at boarding school. The themes of female empowerment and friendship have resonated now for 10 blockbuster years, and while the musical doesn’t come close to the philosophical weight (and darkness) of the Gregory Maguire novel, Winnie Holzman’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics dig into some crafty insights about good, evil, relativism and totalitarianism.
The “Wicked” tour welcomed a new Glinda and Elphaba in Fresno, and it’s a vibrant pairing. Kara Lindsay brings a hint of nerdy charm to the role of the blond Glinda — sending her limbs akimbo in selected comic moments, an almost streetlike snarl lurking beneath the chipper charm — and brought a depth to the role in the second act, when things get darker for her character, that I particularly liked. Laurel Harris hams up her fun Elphaba moments with finesse, and she solidly carries the angst of the show on her shoulders.
Among the rest of the accomplished cast, I was particularly drawn to Kathy Fitzgerald’s Madame Morrible, who made me pay attention to her character in a way I hadn’t before.
I had two minor quibbles with the sound on Thursday: at times the ensemble singers weren’t loud enough, and while Lindsay enunciates quite clearly as Glinda, some of the lyrics in Lindsay’s power ballads were mushy.
Repeated viewings of any show will inevitably draw attention to some of its weaker moments. “Wicked” doesn’t have many, but to me the scene in which Elphaba’s sister, Nessarose (Emily Behny), attempts a magic spell has always seemed rushed and perfunctory — and in this production, it seemed even more so.
But the show overall is so tight and the design so sublime — such memorable costumes, lights, sets, sound design — that even the thin parts never seem a stumble. While the show wraps itself up in stunning visuals and soaring music, it always manages to scale down to very human moments. Elphaba might manage to defy gravity, but she also gets the chance to spend a precious minute on stage modeling her new hat. Taken together, those moments are why “Wicked” casts such a spell.