Before the orchestra hit the first note in the musical "Wicked" at the Robinson Center Musical Hall, I paused to note the triumph for Central Arkansas's theater scene. Here audiences were packed to the gills for the much-anticipated prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" and mere blocks away Arkansas Repertory Theatre crowds were being dazzled by native son Avery Clark's lead bow in "Hamlet." There were also shows going on at the Weekend Theater, Murry's Dinner Playhouse and elsewhere. It isn't always this active, but the idea that Arkansans can only see great shows by hopping on a plane to New York City surely took a big hit.
But let's fly back to "Wicked," which arrived with its "must see" status fixed permanently on its black witch's cap. Celebrity Attractions booked the show for two weeks — a huge bet on demand — and, if word of mouth is as golden as marketers believe it is, then they'll walk away winners. This "Wicked," bolstered by lead performances of Vicki Noon as Elphaba and Natalie Daradich as Glinda, is everything a huge musical should be — tuneful, funny, compelling, fantastical, glittery and odd. Musicals strain at credulity to begin with and the story in "Wicked" is one that makes your head hurt if you think about it too much. But the bottom line is if you are made to care about what comes next then everything else will take care if itself.
And you do care about the fate of the two girls who will eventually become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch. "Wicked," with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, works best when exploring the relationship between the two who begin as enemies and end as friends. The highlight is the school dorm room scene where Daradich, playing the blonde, self-absorbed Glinda to the hilt, teaches Elphaba, born with the scream-inducing green skin, to be "Popular." Daradich struts and faints and pulls out every laugh imaginable.
As Elphaba, Noon is the central figure in "Wicked" and, as such, has the showstopping numbers such as "Defying Gravity," which she belts out with wicked power. The convoluted part of the story has Elphaba taking on the Wizard of Oz (Don Amendolia) over animal rights — or, that is, for the rights of animals to speak — and those scenes don't have the appeal of the others. Still, "Wicked" is smart in the way it consistently works in quotes and totems such as the broomstick from "The Wizard of Oz."
On many occasions the touring shows that pull into Robinson have young, uneven casts. That isn't the case with this "Wicked." The large cast is strong across the board. The set, which often looks like the inside of a moving clock and is packed with special effects (note the big, flying dragon perched above the stage), the lights and costumes are dazzlers. I doubt many will feel cheated out of the money plunked down for tickets. And when you factor in the cost of not buying a ticket to NYC, "Wicked" must surely be seen as a bargain.