Update 8/13/13: This review originally incorrectly identified the actors in the roles discussed below. The article has been updated. Thanks to the commenters who pointed out the mistake.
About a week and a half ago I was in Philadelphia for my cousin's wedding, and spent the following day doing some sightseeing. It was raining the entire day, so me and the group I was with decided that we should go see a show at night. It so happened that Wicked was playing across the street at the famous Academy of Music, so we bought some tickets.
I wasn't there specifically to review the show, of course, but I committed as much of it as possible to memory, and then wrote the first draft of what's below the next day as I traveled to Williamsburg, VA.
Warning: This review contains major spoilers for the show, so if you haven't seen it and don't wish to know anything about it, turn back now!
Everybody in this production was excellent, from Clifton Davis, who portrayed Doctor Dillamond, to Laurel Harris and Jenn Gambatese as the two main characters, Elphaba and Glinda, respectively. Of all the cast, though, I thought that it was Eilinsfeld who stood out the most. Of course, Elphaba is the title character, so one would hope that the actress portraying her is up to the job, but Harris not only hit all the right cues at the right times, but brought a special something to the show that made it quite enjoyable.
She made the audience believe she was the Wicked Witch of the West, while simultaneously making them care for Elphaba's well-being. We knew that bucket of water was coming at the end, but cared enough for the character by that point that we really hoped it would not. Any time an actor or actress pulls on the heartstrings, you know they're good. Harris is not the main actress for Elphaba, but the standby, and a temporary replacement at that. However, I think she could pull off being the main actress for the tour.
Lighting and Sound
What is there to say, other than things were lit well when needed, and made dark when needed? If anything, it is the dark scenes that contributed to the story the most, and the lighting crew handled them particularly well. The lighting also helped set the scene whenever there was a flashback scene (two of them), separating the future characters from the present ones earlier on, and the present ones from the past ones later on.
As for the sound, it was technically good, with no hiccups that I could perceive, but was sometimes not loud enough to reach me in the nosebleeds. Granted I was in an area specifically marked as limited view, but at times it was difficult to out what the characters were saying. For the most part, though, it was loud and clear.
For the most part the props enhanced the surroundings and were proper. I particularly enjoyed the mechanical version of "Oz" as the Wizard's substitute for his true human visage. The only issue I found was the dragon; it was never clear why the dragon prop was included. I looked back at original Oz book series by L. Frank Baum, as well as the Wicked novel by Gregory Maguire, and can find no mention of a dragon. It seems to function mostly as an additional means of emphasizing the dark and scary parts, but it was only used a few times throughout the show. I think some scary lighting and music would have done the job just fine, saved parts and assembly costs, and given limited-view patrons (like me) the chance to see a few extra feet of the back of the stage.
I found few issues with the plot itself, except one issue with the development of one of the characters, which I'll go into in the next section. One thing some other reviews of the show discussed was the message conveyed by the treatment of the Animals. These reviews found the "suppressing others who are different is bad" message to be a bit "in-your-face." Indeed, that message is quite obvious, but I don't think it detracts from the show as a whole. Indeed, the message drives key parts of the plot, especially later on as we come into the time frame of the original Oz story.
Wicked is, if nothing else, Elphaba's story, and unlike in the L. Frank Baum books or the 1939 movie, the Wicked Witch has some depth. She is not truly evil, but she does some bad stuff to get back at the wizard for imprisoning the flying monkeys and subjugating the Animals. Initially, though, she is presented as an anxious young girl, practically disowned by a father who accused Elphaba of being responsible for her mother's death. It's a somewhat common trope in literature, but it still works here. What it means is that you really don't want her to melt at the end, and indeed it was explained as having been an illusion.
I think a truism of Wicked is that there is no purely good character. Even Glinda the Good Witch essentially leaves her best friend to fend for herself when Glinda had a chance to enhance her popularity. Some characters are more one-dimensional than others, but each have their own struggles, triumphs, and cheerful days. The exception might be Madame Morrible, who is both one-dimensionally all about her own power and a complete jerk to everyone, even those people she supposedly likes.
My only real issue was the self-characterization of Nessarose. She performs one spell and suddenly she's the Wicked Witch of the East? She doesn't even have inherent powers and only ever performed one spell, and she's suddenly on Elphaba's (propagandized) level of wickedness? I didn't buy it. Nessarose had developed into a bit of a tyrant by the second act, but a witch she was not, never mind a wicked one.
Comparison to L. Frank Baum's Original
Wicked has a very well-developed plot, and it's even better when you consider that it must navigate the twists and turns presented by the original L. Frank Baum story. It fits well into the universe as an re-imagining of the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch. The end of the story is something you can definitely imagine happening within the context of the original story. However, I think to truly judge Wicked, you have to treat it as its own entity, as in Baum's story there was no room for interpretation: the witches of the east and west weren't related and they weren't ever good.
I guess the question is: would Baum have loved this story? I think he might have. From the little I know about Baum, he loved telling stories, and I think he may have loved the re-imagining that is Wicked. It's a fresh way of telling the story of Oz that not even he imagined.
From my perspective, Wicked is a fantastic retelling of Baum's classic story, and the touring show continues success that debuted in San Francisco and Broadway in 2003. There are one or two things that could use revision or removal (like the dragon), but they are minor in the grand scheme or things. Overall, this show adds a new layer to the world created by L. Frank Baum and, I believe, enhances it.
That said, the production I saw wasn't without a few issues, though ones I think could be cleared up with a few revisions to the script.
I definitely recommend that you see the show, either on Broadway or in a city near you. The show currently has two national tours.