In the old days, gay people watching The Wizard Of Oz never believed any of that nonsense about there being “No place like home.” Obviously, the minute she was old enough, Dorothy was going to escape that black and white, rural hell-hole in Kansas and flee like the devil back to the Technicolor world of Oz, better known as the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Oz was where the fun was, because it was full of peculiar people who believed in rainbows, not in dreary family values. The Emerald City was full of dirty old hams, wicked witches, naughty munchkins and leering magicians, exactly what any normal teenager longs for.
Wicked, now playing at the Canon Theatre, takes the dirty fun out of Oz and replaces it with correct platitudes about the importance of honouring difference and how we should all work really, really, really hard to avoid the unfortunate results of intolerance and discrimination. And just in case you don’t get the proper message, “Goodness” is shown to get its own reward. In this version, a selflessly good though sadly misunderstood Wicked Witch Of The West ends up living happily ever after with the handsome straight guy hero.
Toronto audiences are seeing a sold out touring version of the highly successful Broadway production, which garnered well-deserved Tony awards for scenic designer Eugene Lee and costume designer Susan Hilferty. The stunning costumes are faithfully reproduced and the set is imaginatively redesigned for its trip out on the road.
Those audiences should probably be grateful that they get to see the show at the start of its tour. Everything looks brand new and both chorus and stars still seem to be genuinely enthusiastic.
Speaking of stars, Stephanie J Block certainly makes the most of her role as Elpheba, the despised green-skinned outcast who, according to this show, is forced against her will to turn into the Wicked Witch. Block takes command of the stage from her first appearance and does a fine, professional job with the mostly forgettable music and lyrics from veteran composer Stephen Schwartz. It is not Block’s fault that in this telling, MGM’s wonderfully naughty Wicked Witch Of The West turns out to be just another tragically misunderstood, boring heroine; a prissy know-it-all working her heart out to free all those downtrodden victims.
In this rewriting of Oz, Good Witch Glinda ends up being far more fun to watch and Kendra Kassebaum certainly plays her carelessly mischievous character for all she is worth.
The other leading characters are badly underwritten. Our handsome hero is a cipher, and Derrick Williams unfortunately reflects that in his performance. Veteran character actor Carol Kane as Madame Morrible does manage to steal some of the scenes she is in, but David Garrison as the Wizard is disappointing. In his hands, even a routine intended to evoke nostalgia for Broadway (and Hollywood’s) classic song-and-dance men doesn’t work.