Two of the producers of the musical Wicked bear the name Platt, which (in German) means flat, and one the name Stone, which (in English) means heavy. Why not also one called Long, although it is too much to ask for one called Boring, all of which apply to the show.
Based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, with a book by Winnie Holzman, this is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, and Oz, these days, bodes ill. This is the story of two young women, Glinda and Elphaba, who become, respectively, the Good Witch of the East and the Wicked Witch of the West. These girls from Oz, despite falling for the same guy and various other contretemps, never quite ceased to be friends from sorcery school on, through many adventures considerably more interesting to themselves than to us. This is also the backstory of how the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow became such, though the Scarecrow’s fate here does not mesh with his subsequent story.
Never mind that, what of a score by Stephen Schwartz, who has clearly lost it? Only one song, “Wonderful,” has a memorable tune, and even that rather trite. The lyrics might as well be spoken rather than sung, except that then we could make out the words, which have at best intermittent sparkle. So maybe the aggressive orchestra is performing a charitable act, and what we are supposed to focus on is really the décor by Eugene Lee, and the somewhat hit-or-miss costumes of Susan Hilferty. The scenery certainly stars. It stretches into the auditorium, with a fire-breathing dragon atop the proscenium arch, and winged monkeys flying over our heads.
The sets may feature a too copious array of cogwheels rolled about in well-stacked towers, with giant clocks not far behind. Who would have thought Oz so industrialized—or have I forgotten things? There is something moving most of the time in sundry directions, but the book clobbers such dependable performers as Carole Shelley, Joel Grey, and Norbert Leo Butz into dramatic stasis in some kind of narrative fog that not even Kenneth Posner’s hyperactive lighting can quite dispel.
As Glinda, Kristin Chenoweth is cute as a button, but rather makes you wish for a zipper. She sings the worthless songs admirably, and speaks her would-be-funny lines with spice, even as the accomplished Idina Menzel brings genuine pathos and edge to Elphaba, but all in vain. “When gray and sere our hair has turned / We shall still revere the lessons learned,” we hear, and note that foliage, not hair, turns sere, though the show is clearly more withered than wicked.
Joe Mantello, a good play director, is not at home in musicals; he doesn’t know how to structure and build a number, and Wayne Cilento’s choreography, dutifully trotting along, is no great help. One can see where the $14 million went, though one cannot applaud their sense of direction.
It’s marvelous when an actor and a role that seemed to be waiting for each other meet in an incandescent embrace. Tovah Feldshuh has impressed in a number of roles, but none has etched itself into her skin and taken over her whole inner being the way that of Mrs. Meir now does in Golda’s Balcony. The excellent makeup (wig by Paul Huntley, the rest by John Caglione Jr.) creates the likeness, and her acting fleshes, indeed souls it out to munificent overflowing. I doubt that even the late Edward Said, chief American advocate of the Palestinians’ cause, could have resisted this performance, which gives so rigorously, tirelessly, and movingly, yet never loses control, never yields to the slightest excess.
To be sure, William Gibson, in his second go at Golda—last time round, it was Anne Bancroft in Golda—gets her resoundingly right. I simply could not tell where Gibson begins and Golda ends, if indeed she ends at all. Nothing is done or said that doesn’t feel coruscantly correct, dexterously blending private and public events, and making a one-person play convey so many lives, so much history, such an onrush of humanity. There is enough humor and drama here for a much longer play, but the 89 intermissionless minutes never feel either short or long, only perfect.
Scott Schwartz has directed with assurance on Anna Louizos’s simple yet evocative setting, to which Howell Binkley’s lighting, Batwin & Robin’s projections, and Mark Bennett’s sound add powerful finishing touches. And touched, deeply touched, is what you will be.
Likable poor plays exist just like unlikable good ones. Into the former category falls Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, which manages to be sometimes funny and sometimes feelingful without ever being first-rate. It is the story of an elderly widow in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida, who takes dance lessons she doesn’t need (she’s already an accomplished dancer) from a youngish instructor who desperately needs them (his livelihood depends on them). The two could actually be a romantic couple if only she weren’t old and he weren’t gay.
This could make for an engrossing play written by someone else. Alfieri, to be sure, is a genius, albeit in marketing, not playwriting. He writes plays that he then adapts into movies, making double profit. He also knows that a one-set, two-character play with a meaty role for a “mature” actress is highly commercial, ergo Six Dance Lessons was already seen in Los Angeles, Miami, and Berlin, and might just as easily pop up in Novosibirsk. In show business, marketing genius is at least as good as art.
As the woman, Polly Bergen charms: She can act, she has a winning personality, and she still looks damn good. Mark Hamill can also act, but he’s even better at overacting; if he could transfer his mugging from the stage to the streets, he’d have it made. At the performance I attended, just after one of the characters confesses to mortal illness, someone in the front row started to choke. At first I thought it was something orchestrated by Alfieri. Unfortunately not; even genius has limits.
A.R. Gurney’s Strictly Academic is really two short plays, one more contrived than the other. Gurney began as a real talent, then milked his specialty, Wasp lives of quiet desperation, into several viable plays climaxing in Love Letters, requiring only two sedentary actors reading from a script. Performed worldwide, it proved a goldmine. Seduced by this, Gurney, though artistically dead, refuses to lie down. For a long time now, his plays have been not just turning to but actually made of dust. If you have poor taste, or, better yet, none, Strictly Academic is strictly for you.
At Nine, the new guido, John Stamos (replacing Antonio Banderas), is pallid in Act One, livelier in Act Two, though still charmless. The new Carla, lissome Sara Gettelfinger (replacing Jane Krakowski), is a better sexpot than comedienne. As the dream woman, Claudia, Rebecca Luker (replacing Laura Benanti) sings beautifully and acts sweetly, but does not quite convey the desiderated star quality. Daniel Manche is a terrific Little Guido, with Marni Nixon as his dignified, well-sung mother. Jacqueline Hendy is a fetching Our Lady of the Spa, and Mary Stuart Masterson continues as a fine Luisa. That Eartha Kitt, as Liliane La Fleur, can, at her age, still sing, dance, and fascinate is astounding, though no less so than Chita Rivera, whom she replaces. The show goes on being delightful even as David Leveaux’s staging remains ridiculous.