Review: Wicked by touring company
by Brian Paul Scipione

It seems a little odd to write an introduction to such a well-known musical phenomenon as Wicked, especially here in Austin in which despite the play’s already huge popularity it was touted by a media storm that included billboards, television commercials, and a bombardment of social media ads. Yet nowadays with ads tailored made for the individual thanks to invasive communication software, that could be just me. As I write this, my computer is probably busy preparing an advertisement for a VPN just for me as well.


Olivia Valli (photo by Joan Marcus)


Therefore, let us appreciate this work in numbers. Wicked, like many Broadway musicals, has won a ton of awards including a Grammy, three Tonys, seven Drama Desk Awards and more than a hundred more international awards. It has been performed in 16 different countries, translated into six languages and viewed by roughly 65 million people across the globe. Its revenue to date is well over five billion dollars. It has not only joined an elite circle of billion-dollar-plus-grossing musicals that includes only The Lion King and The Phantom of the Opera, but it was the fastest to do so, hitting that mark after a mere five thousand performances. In addition to its world-wide success, it has twice gone on national tour in the United States. The current tour began in 2009 and is still going. Gregory Maguire's novel on which it's based half a million copies on its own and then an additional four and half million since the musical’s debut. Wicked is set to make its major motion picture debut with two films, the first slated to be released November of this year.


The present touring production is directed by Joe Mantello who has also won many awards including Outer Critics Circles, Drama Desks, Tonys and membership into The Theater Hall of Fame. Wicked’s book by Winnie Holzman won her the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical. The music and lyrics were composed by Stephen Schwartz who has won three Oscars, three Grammys, four Drama Desk Awards, one Golden Globe Award. So, it is no surprise that many critics have attributed the success of Wicked directly to the quality of the production rather than to the  subject matter.


This musical is not a rewrite, a reboot, a revival, or a retelling of the story behind Frank L Baum’s The Wizard of Oz; in modern parlance, it's an origin story of its principal characters. Wicked has the knowing charm of Tom Stoppard’s Rozencratz and Guilderstern are Dead, in that it does work in some of the events of Dorothy Gale’s story into the background. But it would be too easy to suggest that this story is Maguire’s attempt to give the Wicked Witch of the West her due. The world he created is a much more complex making of subject matter: it treats the vagaries of historical context, rather than serving as a story of character assignation.


Many reviewers frame the story as a commentary on good and evil since, let’s face it, the Wicked Witch has been one of the dominant villains in Western culture for nearly a century, so the idea that she may have not actually been evil is very intriguing. But is that the whole story?


Celia Hotttenstein (photo by Joan Marcus)


Though it's physically impossible to take a Broadway production on the road in all its original glorious detail, the Wicked tour doesn't cut any corners. It serves up the flying scenes, the giant mechanical dragon clock sitting atop the proscenium arch , and the floating bubble shooting bubbles as it crosses the stage. The array of physical stunts and props maintained for the traveling performance is impressive. Also immediately noticeable is the fact that the wigs and the costumes are of the same excellent quality one would expect from a permanent show.


Despite all that,  perhaps for me the finest point I would put on it is that the conductor is actually facing the cast. More often than not the the leader of the orchestra is hidden beneath the stage and visible to the chorus only via a video monitor perched hundreds of feet away on the balcony of the Bass theater. This direct connection made a world of difference in the delivery and spontaneity of the singing performances. This aspect is most clear in the vocal vamping, which in other touring productions can be a bit sloppy. The pacing of this show (even at two hours and forty-five minutes) is as tight as a black-box production of Othello. It's on point that I thought for a moment it might have been abridged. This is probably another advantage of giving the orchestra the respect it deserves.


The story focuses on the school days of Elphaba and Glinda and the unlikely bond they form as they discover the world of magic. When Elphaba’s nascent power is noticed,  Madam Morrible tells her, “Never apologize for talent!” This is not an easy task for someone who has been so severely judged and oppressed because of her natural green skin color. She finds a new life purpose when she notices that similar abusive treatment is increasingly happening to the talking animals of Oz.


Celia Hottenstein, Olivia Valli (photo by Joan Marcus)


The second part of Elphaba's journey is her surprising formation of a friendship with Glinda, a friendship that rapidly builds into a partnership against the powers that be. Here is the crux of the story and herein lies this production’s defining characteristic. Both Celia Hottenstein as Glinda and Olivia Valli as Elphaba transcend the expectations of the dual leads. Successors usually find it nearly impossible to step out of the shadow or an iconic performance—two of them, in this case. The original cast members Idina Menzel (Elphaba) and Kristin Chenoweth (Glinda) have transcended icon status in their original roles. Not since Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford in The Phantom of the Opera (1988) have two cast members been so intrinsically identified with the parts they played.


The response by Hottenstein and Valli is quite simple in application. Rather than imitating the originals, they alter their interpretations sufficiently enough not only to make the characters their own but, in my opinion, to reframe the meaning of the musical. Chenoweth’s Glinda was the apex of clueless nonchalance, a stereotypical self-possessed princess who never for a moment doubts that she is God’s gift to the world, Hottenstein’s version has all of the glacial conniving of a ‘Heather’ or a Regina George (Mean Girls)—not arrogant by the grace of God but rather because of her own self-possessed devious guile. This alters profoundly her relationships with her fans, lover, schoolteachers, the Wizard, and Elphaba. And while Menzel’s Elphaba was a testament to surviving and thriving after victimhood, Valli’s version builds upon this by elevating the role to equal Glinda's aggression. She's much less a reluctant hero and more of a outright rebel. This is best seen in her performance of “Defying Gravity” which has much more bluster than Menzel’s awestruck version. Elphaba is truly not apologizing for her talent.


Celia Hottenstein, Olivia Valli (photo by Joan Marcus)As a self-actualized Glinda, Hottenstein’s delivers her performance without the giddy outburst of unrestrained joy that originally defined the role. She embraces a sort of forced grace displayed in a growling animalistic bravado that leaves behind the pure histrionics of the former. It's now clearer than ever that she and Elphaba, while true friends, are friends for the wrong reasons throughout. When they meet the Wizard, get involved with the same man, and have to choose sides on the upcoming civil war, Glinda’s decisions no longer seem arbitrary and Elphaba’s no longer appear to be motivated solely by doing the right thing.


Toward the end of the second act, the Wizard makes a comment about history being meaningless. That's no longer just a derisive explanation for his actions; it's a comment on Oz and the real world for which it's a metaphor. It suggests that not just his actions but those of all those around him are mere mere happenstances of history. They aren't the outcome of a moral and ethical battle between good and evil. If history is written by the victors than the Witch of the West will be deemed wicked, but so would the Witch of the East if the other side had won. It is the human desire to look at historical figures as being beyond human that is to blame.


By re-establishing the humanity behind their characters Hottenstein and Valli have helped remove the gloss from the fairy tale. And this is why Wicked deserves its vast international acclaim and rabid fan base. It has all the pomp and circumstance of the best of Broadway while leaving none of the meaning behind. Hottenstein and Valli serve as a tribute to actors everywhere by reminding audiences the subtle delivery of a line and the heartfelt cadence of a vocal performance truly make a musical.


by Stephen Schwartz, Winnie Holzman, Gregory Maguire
touring company

March 13 - March 31, 2024
Bass Concert Hall
2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Austin, TX, 78712

 March 13 - 31, 2024 

 Tues – Thurs at 7:30 pm | Fri at 8 pm | Sat at 2 & 8 pm | Sun at 1:30 & 6:30 pm 

                       [NOTE: new performance times for 2023-24 Season] 

Bass Concert Hall | 2350 Robert Dedman Drive | Austin, TX 78712 

Single tickets will go on sale Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, at 10 am. 

TICKET start at $49. Tickets are available at and, by phone at (512) 477-1444, or from the Texas Performing Arts ticket office at Bass Concert Hall.  For groups of 10 or more, call (877) 275-3804 or email