There it is. The last, ear-punishing note of the very last song, and the cast comes onto the stage for the curtain call. First the lesser characters form a smiling line that prompts a couple of people in the audience to stand up. Then the bigger fish rush forward and bow as a ripple of movement moves from the front to the back of the auditorium and up to the top balconies. Wave after wave of clapping theater-goers rise to their feet, the music gains volume and momentum, and then the principals -- Elphaba, Glinda -- are on stage amid a roaring billow of applause, and finally, in one great surge, everyone, everyone in the whole damn place stands up.
Feeling tiny, flanked by erect bodies to the left and right, my view of the stage blocked by a solid line of backsides at eye level, but resolutely seated.
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 3, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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The first act of Wicked is entertaining. A mechanical dragon broods over the expensively quirky set. Circled by gibbering flying monkeys, the good witch, Glinda, floats down to earth on a bubble, her golden curls framing her lovely face, her white gown glittering with gems. She's come to inform the people of Oz that Elphaba, the wicked witch, is dead -- which she does in an exquisitely soaring soprano. Questioned, she describes how she met Elphaba, and here the story begins.
It could be a good one. Loosely based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked turns the Wizard of Oz into a parable about race and gender discrimination, politics, repression and crowd manipulation. Elphaba isn't really evil; she's just been persecuted since birth because of her green skin. And Glinda isn't exactly good. She's the kind of spoiled, pretty young woman who has always effortlessly attracted well-wishers and acquired everything her shallow heart desired. The two meet at Shiz, a college of sorcery, where Glinda is idolized and Elphaba shunned, until Madame Morrible, who runs the place, recognizes Elphaba's talent for magic. The two young women eventually develop a kind of friendship, with Glinda attempting to make Elphaba over, even demonstrating the sexy hair toss so effortlessly executed by all popular girls. Fiyero, Glinda's male counterpart, appears -- a rich boy, out for a good time and amusingly determined to lead an "unexamined life." Glinda promptly claims him. Through a professor who happens to be a talking goat, she and Elphaba learn about a cruel injustice: Animals, who in this world have always been able to speak, are losing their ability to shape words and are being forbidden to teach. Glinda and Elphaba will soon learn that Oz is no colorful childhood fantasyland, but a grim place run by a Wizard who affects a folksy, fatherly style while ruling through fear, force and widespread surveillance.
If the first act is rather long, it does field two interesting protagonists and promise an equally interesting story -- about not only politics and women's friendships, but the ancient bond between human beings and animals. Unfortunately, the first act is followed by a second that's equally long, but in which all trace of coherence dissolves into a sloshy puddle of emotion and cliche. Suddenly the focus is on the love between Elphaba and Fiyero -- who's devolved into a characterless, Disney-prince-style swain -- and Glinda's jealousy. With all the zing gone from the plot, there's nothing left to focus on but the utter vapidity of the music: a featureless love song between Elphaba and Fiyero, a duet of ghastly sentimentality in which Elphaba and Glinda declare their eternal friendship.
You can see why teenage girls struggling with issues of identity love this show, but why would any thinking adult pay to sit through it? All of those adults in the Buell, however, are entranced by that wonderful Broadway singing trick of communicating emotion by getting louder and louder and louder, as though they'd never encountered it before. Imagine: one little person on a stage, aided by nothing more than a very expensive amplification system producing ALL THAT NOISE. It must be art. "What a powerful voice," one man enthuses to his companion after Elphaba has thunderously expressed her grief at the thought of losing Fiyero in "One Good Deed." It reminds me of Sorin's line in The Seagull: "I was singing...once when a fellow-lawyer said to me, 'You have a powerful voice, sir.' Then he thought a moment and added, 'But it is a disagreeable one!'" I honestly couldn't say if actress Victoria Matlock's natural voice is pleasant or unpleasant, though I can vouch for the depth of her lungs. By the end of "One Good Deed," my eardrums feel the way George Foreman's head must have after his Rumble in the Jungle with Muhammad Ali. Christina DeCicco, who plays Glinda, does have a glorious voice, as well as a gift for physical comedy, but even she isn't buoyant enough to keep this great, soggy, monstrous thing afloat. Not that it matters. Mauled by many reviewers, Wicked remains a mighty force -- hauling in unimaginable amounts of money, enrapturing hordes of theater-goers.