Celia Hottenstein as Glinda and Olivia Valli as Elphaba in the National Tour of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus
It’s been a few years since the smash-hit musical, Wicked, which features music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman, weaved its magic spell over the Triangle. But, luckily, it’s back onstage now at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
The much-loved story is based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, which was inspired by another novel—L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which in turn inspired a very famous movie. Of course, if that’s confusing, all you really need to know is that Wicked turns the world of Oz, as most people know it, on its head. This origin story takes a look back at Elphaba (Olivia Valli), the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda (Celia Hottenstein), who becomes Glinda the Good Witch, back when they were students at the magical Shiz University.
In fact, the whole first act focuses on the duo before they were famous (or infamous). Viewers watch as the pair begins as bitter enemies . . . only to become the truest of friends. Luckily, the two leads share a chemistry and charisma that makes their characters’ blossoming friendship all the more real and touching.
Valli’s Elphaba is a tough, no-nonsense character with just the right hints of tenderness beneath the surface, while Hottenstein’s Galinda/Glinda wears her heart on her sleeve. She also has a real knack for the humor that redeems her bubbly, ego-bloated character. Hottenstein feigns funny voices and flips her golden hair in all the right places, while Valli fumes beside her.
Together, the two endear themselves to viewers throughout the first act. Hottenstein’s delivery of “Popular,” in which Galinda gives a reluctant Elphaba a makeover, is one of the early highlights. The quirky choreography and Joe Mantello’s smart direction help bring this number to life. Later, viewers are treated to Valli’s inspired performance of “Defying Gravity” as these wonderful witches head off to Oz and to their new lives. But, once the curtain opens on the second act, calamity ensues, and their friendship is put to the test.
As things go awry around them, everything goes right on the production side. There are booming special effects, dazzling lights, and scenery that appears like magic . . . not to mention some incredibly realistic (and scary!) flying monkeys. Viewers will feel like they’ve really been swept away to Oz and will watch on the edge of their seats as twisted love triangles, fantasy, friendship, and romance all blend into a compelling story backed by rich character development.
Along the way, audiences will fall in love with Christian Thompson’s endearing Fiyero and get some good laughs from Kathy Fitzgerald’s “Madame Morrible.” What stands out the most, however, is how simple (and beautiful) this story is. Yes, there’s magic, but underneath all that, it’s a story about friendship and finding the courage to love yourself as you are. This production pulls off the fantastical elements with ease, and, most importantly of all, without losing the heart that makes Wicked stand the test of time.
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