Review: Standing ovation, confetti for 'Wicked' gala

Posted at 01/25/14 10:07 AM

Glinda and Elphaba in a scene from "Wicked." Photo from the official program of "Wicked" in Manila

MANILA – Filipino theatergoers gave the Australian touring cast of “Wicked” a rapturous standing ovation during the international hit musical’s gala night on Friday at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

Local theater actors, dressed in green Ozian costumes, showed their support for the production, occupying the front row of the CCP Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo, and also posing for photos during the pre-show cocktails at the main theater lobby. Among the costumed stage actors who attended Friday’s gala were Audie Gemora, Carlo Orosa, Robie Zialcita, Topper Fabregas and Reb Atedero.

Filipino fans waited over 10 years for the Broadway musical to be finally staged in Manila and were rewarded with what is touted as the largest touring show of “Wicked,” whose scale is the same as that in New York, where the Stephen Schwartz-composed musical made its debut in 2003.

This A$12-million touring production started in Australia in 2008 and was brought to Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand before coming to Manila, where it will run until February 23.

For the tour’s Manila leg, Jemma Rix and Suzie Mathers returned to their roles as the two witches of Oz and were enthusiastically received by Filipinos for their flawless performances.

Based on characters created by L. Frank Baum in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “Wicked” tells the story of the unlikely friendship of two girls who first meet as sorcery students. Glinda (Mathers) grows up to be the Good Witch, while Elphaba (Rix) becomes the Wicked Witch of the West.

If “The Wizard of Oz” is a classic children’s tale, “Wicked” the musical, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, has all the ingredients for a young adult hit, particularly among girls.

Glinda is the school’s popular girl, a cheery blonde who is forced to share rooms with the outcast Elphaba who was born with green skin. But while Glinda may have the wealth and beauty (think “Legally Blonde”) that a lot of young girls aspire for, it is Elphaba who has the gift of sorcery that Glinda wants. Moreover, Glinda’s fiancée Fiyero (Steve Danielsen) is actually in love with Elphaba, a revelation that almost destroys the two women’s friendship. Despite the musical’s fantastic elements from goat professors and flying monkeys, “Wicked” offers a story of female bonding that many can relate with.

On top of this BFF soap opera, “Wicked” is also an origins story with events from “The Wizard of Oz” intersecting with the musical’s plot, which provides another layer of entertainment for audiences to chew on. (If you haven’t seen “The Wizard of Oz,” watch it first before going to the CCP for “Wicked.”)

But the appeal of “Wicked” isn’t just based on the audience’s familiarity with its source material. The stage wizardry on display is guaranteed to entertain even the most casual of theatergoers.

The scenes on “Wicked” unfold seamlessly and precisely on stage – without blackouts -- such that one hardly notices the musical’s nearly three-hour running time. The design elements may not have the grandeur of say, “The Phantom of the Opera,” which also toured Manila two years ago, but there are plenty of details to gawk at in “Wicked” from the general cyberpunk influences to the efficient use of space.

The book by Winnie Holzman is filled with well-placed zingers and comedic dialogue that never feel out of place or unnecessary. And despite the stereotypical characterization of Glinda as the typical dumb blonde, the goodness in her nonetheless feels authentic, while Elphaba though not necessarily sinister does have a mean streak in her, making her wonderfully complex.

Schwartz’s songs, meanwhile, are among the most commercially melodic to come out from Broadway in years. Don’t be surprised to hear some audience members singing along.

These elements were at their most radiant in the Act 1 closer, “Defying Gravity,” in which Elphaba fully embraces her gift of sorcery. Despite the song’s popularity in concerts and “Glee,” one finally appreciates its context and show-stopping power. When Elphaba finally ascends on her broomstick in a gorgeous display of lights, the audience was simply spellbound, erupting in a thunderous applause often reserved for curtain call.

A big chunk of the success of this “Wicked” staging was due to the chemistry of the two lead actresses, who instead of engaging in a diva showdown, truly embodied the musical’s message of harmony amid differences.

Rix is definitely a powerhouse singer who not only could hit those high notes effortlessly but also showed control and a keen sense of vocal dynamics, especially in the soliloquy on “The Wizard and I.” Mathers, meanwhile, had such crystal-clear tones, her soprano a thrilling contrast to Rix’s belting style.

No wonder that come curtain call, the two took their bows at the same time to shouts and hearty applause as green confetti rained in the theater. “Wicked” is just pure joy.