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Theater Review: “Wicked”

Jackie Burns as Elphaba in Defying Gravity.
Photo credit:
Photo by Joan Marcus

In the mood for a little sensory and plot overload? There is cause for joy: “Wicked” is back in town, playing through Nov. 25 at San Diego Civic Theatre. Joe Mantello directs the juggernaut show.

Yep, that Cessna-wingspan (36+ feet) dragon with the red, red eyes still perches on the top of the set, watching three monkey dancers below. And G(a)linda motors around by bubble, still mostly concerned with herself and finding the right guy. Sets move this way and that, costumes are spectacular, often wildly fanciful, and the songs are loud and frequently funny.

Inspired by L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s book “The Wizard of Oz,” Winnie Holzman reimagined Gregory Maguire’s novel and Stephen Schwartz wrote the music for the now-beloved musical, giving Glinda and the Wicked Witches a backstory. The show is now on a 15th anniversary tour.

This version boasts Jackie Burns as the underrated and maltreated Elphaba, smart and funny but shunned (even by her father) because she is, well, green. Burns has clocked more performances as Elphaba than any other actress, and it shows in her utter command of the part.

Elphaba has a younger sister named Nessarose (Mili Diaz), whose skin is a normal shade, but is confined to a wheelchair. Both are shunted off to Shiz University, where Elphaba is instructed to take care of her sister.

It’s at “Dear Old Shiz” that Elphaba meets G(a)linda. They immediately get off to a rocky start, but when headmistress Madame Morrible (a properly dreadful Jody Gelb) puts the two together as roommates, the real sparks fly. Will they make peace?

Kara Lindsay plays G(a)linda, the girl in the bubble who offers to gives Elphaba some hilarious pointers in becoming “Popular” (not something Elphaba has ever aspired to, but appreciated as an attempt to help). Lindsay has considerable experience playing Glinda (she changes her name mid-show when she realizes nobody can pronounce it) and she can float those high notes with grace and volume.

Other characters are equally fine. Hunky Jon Robert Hall is great as Fiyero, the most desirable guy around. Michael Wartella is wonderfully funny and lovable  as Boq. Chad Jennings is poignant as Dr. Dillamond, the goat who teaches at Old Shiz until the powers that be rule that animals should be seen and not heard.

The Wizard (Jason Graae) offers a few nuggets as well. Here’s my favorite: “Truth is just what everyone agrees on. We believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.”

There are other messages here as well, about the ephemeral (and sometimes downright phony) nature of fame and the necessity of being true to one’s self. But fear not, they won’t distract you from the musical and visual delights of this (mostly) upbeat show.

If you’ve never seen “Wicked,” run, don’t walk to see it while it’s here. And if you have, you may want to revisit an old friend.

The details

“Wicked” plays through November 25, 2018 at San Diego Civic Theatre, 3rd and B Streets, downtown.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm;  Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Sunday and 1 and 6:30 pm.