Friday, September 28, 2018

Make America Wonderful Again: A Review of Wicked in San Antonio

Posted By on Fri, Sep 28, 2018 at 4:13 PM

click to enlarge JOAN MARCUS
  • Joan Marcus
What a difference seven years makes. When I last reviewed Wicked in 2011, I opined that its darker subtexts—of xenophobia, racism, and populism—mirrored Europe’s darkest days, particularly of Germany’s post-Weimar era. The musical’s gravity, so to speak, seemed to me a product of the past.

Au contraire. As the Wizard (terrifically played by Jason Graae) declared at last night’s performance in SA, the best way to unite a discordant populace is to manufacture, and then suppress, a common enemy. (In the case of Oz, it’s their population of sentient animals—but any demonized group will do.) And at that declaration, an uncomfortable ripple made its way through the audience at the Majestic: it had been easy to read the first-act slogan “Animals should be Seen and not Heard” as a nod towards Nazi Germany, but suddenly a rather more contemporary resonance could be discerned. A huckster, a nativist, an authoritarian upstart without scruples but with a terrific command of messaging: yup, the Wizard is Trump – or Trump is our most wonderful wizard. (There’s even a subplot about cages and caging that takes on a whole new resonance.) And so the Wiz’s soft-shoe number—featuring such toe-tapping mots as “there are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist”—works as theater precisely because the charm of the music is at odds with the moral vacuum of the sentiment.

That’s not to say that the evening works only on the political level. Indeed, Wicked is still a bubbly, quick-witted “frenemy” tale between the two most famous witches of Oz: Elphaba (green and smart and misunderstood) and Galinda (beautiful and popular and ‘good’ by a sort of ethical default). And the touring production is in excellent shape, even after some fifteen years (and three American Presidents). Mary Kate Morrissey and Ginna Claire Mason each shine during their star turns, with Morrissey particularly impressive in the act one closer, “Defying Gravity.” As Fiyero, Jon Robert Hall isn’t the strongest dancer I’ve seen in the role—and I’ve seen four Fiyeros—but he puts across the prince’s self-confidence with a strong voice and acting chops. The physical design—by Eugene Lee and costumer Susan Hilferty—continues to dazzle: a steampunk fantasia combining gears, Art Deco flourishes, and great gobs of green. It’s a fine (even wonderful) production.

As I strolled down Houston Street last night, I confess to having mixed feelings about venturing to Wicked yet again: would it seem dated? Old hat? A little sit-commy? I surely wasn’t expecting it to seem urgent, commenting on America’s culture of division amid political upheaval. My companion for the evening—a first-timer—was likewise amazed by its freshness. So if you haven’t seen Wicked before, I think you’ll find the musical’s political resonances to be surprisingly, and perhaps depressingly, evergreen.

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