Saturday, February 8, 2014

PDI Review: 'Wicked' - The Asia-Pacific Tour in Manila

My review of the Asia-Pacific touring production of "Wicked," currently playing the CCP Main Theater until Mar. 9, is in today's Philippine Daily Inquirer - here. PLUS, stuff about the benefit auction for Yolanda victims, and then some.

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What a wicked show!

"Spectacle" is the word that best describes "Wicked" - and that's putting it mildly.

Upon entering the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), where this touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical plays until March 9 before heading back to Australia, one is greeted by a gigantic metallic dragon perched on the proscenium.

The beast's sole purpose is to come alive - that is, sway its head this way and that - for a few seconds at the start of the overture, before returning to its lifeless state for the rest of the show. It's more a decorative centerpiece, actually, but it is also a perfect harbinger of the scale of things to come. Once the curtain opens, there is no stopping the extravagance of the show's technical elements from attempting to overwhelm the senses.

With premium seats priced at P7,000 (and yes, this is almost always a full-house affair), this version of "Wicked" is the real deal. It is an exact replica of the Broadway and West End productions, which means flying out to New York or London is suddenly no longer necessary for this musical's hordes of Filipino devotees (and new converts).

Save for the Australasian cast of first-rate triple-threats, everything is as it appears on the other side of the globe. That is, Eugene Lee's set design, Susan Hilferty's costumes, Kenneth Posner's lights, Wayne Cilento's musical staging and choreography, and Joe Mantello's original direction, now recreated by Lisa Leguillou.

Queen bee
As 21st-century Broadway entertainment goes, "Wicked" is the undeniable reigning queen bee.

It is tear-jerking drama and riotous comedy. It is trite romance anchored on the indispensable love triangle and smart-ass pop-culture commentary. It has the bitch-fighting elements of "Mean Girls," a pro-animal stance that would make Peta (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) proud, and a semester's worth of material for a political science class.

That is to say, Winnie Holzman's book for the musical seems to suffer from some form of identity crisis, which becomes especially glaring when one remembers that what "Wicked" set out to be in the first place is an unauthorized revisionist look at L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and/or the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz."

Yes, it is about the life and times of Elphaba, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West, and her relationship with Glinda the Good, but this nearly three-hour musical apparently wants to be a lot of other things as well.

Fans of the Gregory Maguire novel, upon which "Wicked" is based, may be disappointed to know, if they still don't, that this stage adaptation has reduced the author's labyrinthine fantasy into a simplistic tale of good and evil, and the gritty shades of gray in between.

Pure rapture

Ah, but how easy it is to forgive Holzman's lapses in writing when the finished product is a song-and-dance extravaganza of the highest order, a musical that's as close and true to the spirit of entertainment as any show could possibly get.

There are flying monkeys and flying witches. The dancing is pure rapture. The set, dominated by gargantuan cogwheels and scaffolds, fluidly shifts from the witches' school (complete with a towering statue of The Wizard) to Glinda's bedroom (equipped with a well-appointed rack of luxury shoes) to the Emerald City (beautifully lit by Posner in hues of green) to a cornfield featuring the farm girl Dorothy Gale's fallen house in the backdrop.

For fans of "Oz," there is the added delight of Baum's characters in cameos: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and, in one of the show's cleverest pieces of humor, Dorothy, held captive in Elphaba's cellar.

Let's not forget "Defying Gravity," now karaoke fodder, singing contest staple, and "Glee" property (well, not really). But as a musical sequence, it has become undeniably one of the musical theater's most iconic Act I endings. The sheer grandiosity of seeing Elphaba literally soar to the night sky is matched only by a few - say, the falling chandelier in "The Phantom of the Opera."

A slight surprise, then, that in retrospect, "Wicked's" most potent ingredients are actually its most earthbound elements.

Its most gut-wrenching scene happens to be its quietest, which makes the pain all the more cruel. During the "Dancing Through Life" sequence, Elphaba, alone on the ballroom floor, executing her own outlandish routine amidst stares of amusement and disbelief from both actors and audience. It's the one moment that perfectly captures how it must feel to be an outcast.

Leading ladies

Which brings us to the pair of leading ladies who, with only their voices and overflowing talent, are the most spectacular part of this musical. (It is the male characters who do most of the sitting on the side in "Wicked.")

In this production, those ladies are Jemma Rix and Suzie Mathers.

Rix, one of those extraordinary women blessed with lungs of steel, almost never leaves the stage. As Elphaba, she has three solos that require insane belting ability, in addition to duets and group numbers.

It's a performance that's mostly noted for the exceptional vocal talent involved, but Rix is just as accomplished an actress, skillfully charting Elphaba's course from awkward and naive to sympathetic but maligned.

Mathers, on the other hand, is the comic heart of this production. Her portrayal of Glinda is as buoyant as the bubble she descends on during her first entrance, but she adamantly refuses to fall for the trappings of the dumb blonde stereotype.

Her rendition of that ode to outward appearances, "Popular," reveals an eye for physical comedy, an ear for musical phrasing, and a knack for comic timing. In her considerably briefer turn as a leading character, Mathers manages to always send the audience into fits of electric laughter, in a performance that literally and limitlessly flies.

The rest of the cast are just as capable in their roles; Emily Cascarino as Elphaba's sister Nessarose, and Edward Grey as Boq, the future Tin Man, are especially affecting.


So, let it be said: Those expecting to see theater of laudable depth and intelligence are better off watching something else - Repertory Philippines' masterfully crafted production of "Wait Until Dark," for example.

But for those seeking to be visually dazzled and wildly entertained, or for those who just want to feel, to laugh and cry and have an altogether fantastic time, well, there can't be a more satisfying show right now.

The pop-heavy score, by Stephen Schwartz (also of Disneys' "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Pocahontas," and "Enchanted"), is already a peculiar attraction in itself.

When it opened on Broadway in 2003, "Wicked" was a critical disaster. "This show does not speak well for the future of the Broadway musical," declared The New York Times.

Eleven years later, look how audiences worldwide - Manila included - have fallen for and embraced its magical spell.   

The 3rd paragraph of this article claims that the mechanical dragon watching over the audience comes to life only once - at the start of the show. There are actually two other such instances: During the segment before "Defying Gravity," when The Wizard reveals the newly winged monkeys; and, in Act II, right after "As Long As You're Mine.

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Before anything else, know that these photos were taken using a poor man's phone. (Click photos to enlarge.) Begin with the CCP, afternoon of January 31. 

The CCP main lobby. "Wicked" programmes are sold at P500.

The Oz Dust Boutique, named after "the swankiest place in town,"  sells all sorts of merchandise, from shirts to copies of the original Broadway cast recording.

To enter the theater is to see the Time Dragon and a map of Oz, its green center being the Emerald City.

This was how close we were to the stage.

Packed house for a Friday matinee.

The cast at curtain call.

The January 31 1:30PM performance of "Wicked" was a benefit show for the victims of Supertyphoon Yolanda in Tacloban City. All proceeds, including ticket sales and venue rental, went to that cause. A post-show auction, where an afternoon tea with cast members, two CCP backstage tours, and a makeup kit from MAC Cosmetics (the show's makeup sponsor) were up for grabs, raised P205,000. The event was hosted by Tessa Rufino-Prieto Valdes, whose outfit could give Glinda a run for her money; Mathers, Rix, Steve Danielsen (Fiyero), and Jay Laga'aia (The Wizard) assisted her.

An online auction, where "Wicked" paraphernalia such as a Glinda training wand prop and a music sheet signed by Schwartz, and a vacation package for two to see "Wicked" in London are up for grabs, is ongoing until Feb. 15 (5PM PST). Email bids to Look online for further instructions.

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That evening, attended the opening night performance of the rerun of "Red" by The Necessary Theater, starring Bart Guingona and Joaquin Valdes. From the 2013 theater roundup - here: "This two-man show happened to be the year's most cerebral production - talk of Matisse and Pollock, art and mythology populates this one-act play - but on the shoulders of Guingona and Valdes, was also the most mesmerizing."

And so, took these shots while waiting.

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