Durham Performing Arts Center
Through May 16
I hate those terminally oversensitized commentators who drag political controversy into every public conversation. A discussion board on the TV show Lost this week is an easy case in point:
“There is no way on earth John Locke who was about to be operated on would not have been intubated and being monitored by an Anesthesiologist,” opined pmaron_2000. To which a “TBAGG1776” retorted, “YOU KEEP FORGETTING OBAMA’S BILL PASSED. WELCOME OT [sic] SOCIALIST HEALTH CARE REFORM, LOSERS!”
BUT WITH THATsorry, but with that said, the Broadway musical Wicked is, mainly, a fairly large-writ metaphor for the political exploitation of terror over the past decade. Don’t get me wrong. The professional touring version now playing at DPAC is a stunning, big-stage musical, a must-see pageant for the eyes and ears, given Eugene Lee’s steampunk set design, Susan Hilferty and Tom Watson’s outlandish costumes and wigs, Kenneth Posner’s dramatic lighting and Adam Souza’s orchestral direction. And Winnie Holzman’s book, based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, is a fairy tale just jaded enough to speak directly to our time.
But none of that changes the fact that if Howard Zinn had taken up children’s fables, the results would have looked a lot like this. Still, that’s probably not inappropriate, given this tale’s particular history. For years, scholars argued over possible political and economic allegories in L. Frank Baum’s original novels. Then researchers uncovered Baum’s own stage adaptation, which contained explicit political references and names of contemporary leaders. Apparently Baum’s Oz was never a land that far away.
Neither is Holzman’s. “Something bad is happening in Oz,” an avuncular David De Vries confides early on as Dr. Dillamond, college history professor to Vicki Noon’s verdant honor student and wicked-witch-to-be, Elphaba. The kingdom’s animals, once welcomed as teachers, students and clergy, are losing the power and freedom of speech. Elphaba’s sung response, “It couldn’t happen here,” paraphrases Sinclair Lewis before Dillamond finds himself banished from campus. His sinister replacement introduces an invention, the cage, with the chilling words, “You’re going to be seeing more and more of them in the future.”
These events take place against Elphaba’s rise as a sorcery student, despite social ostracism based onof all thingsthe color of her skin, until she’s ultimately introduced to the Wizard himself. In that climactic meeting, he reveals that he needs her magic to help spy on “subversive animal activities.” Having witnessed their suffering, Elphaba refuses, whereupon the Wiz says, “When I first got here, there was discord and discontent … [T]he best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy!”
From that point, the fight for the soul of Oz is on. As Elphaba flees, the Wiz’s second-in-commanda press secretarylaunches a massive PR campaign to defame Elphaba, convince everyone that her college roommate, the saccharine spoiled brat Glinda (an amusing Natalie Daradich) is actually the good witchand maintain a useful level of fear among the populace.
Obviously, all similarities between these events and the climate in America after 9/11 are entirely intentional. Created within two years of those attacks, Wicked still remains a potent allegory for a time when distrust in government and mainstream media both remain at historic highs. Though Stephen Schwartz’s libretto indulges occasionally in bathos, it’s spangled elsewhere with sharp satire. In “Wonderful,” the Wizard sings, “There are precious few at ease/ With moral ambiguities/ So we act as though they don’t exist.”
Intelligently written and scored, and replete with coups de theatre, Wicked takes the audience on an imaginative trip, filling in the history of Oz in unexpected ways. Now, if only modern children (and adults) weren’t so in need of a fairy tale with these morals: Authority cannot be trusted. The powerful are most concerned with keeping that power. And the popular truth is the one that’s been spun, while the real one’s the most dangerous to know.