'Wicked' defies gravity at The Landmark

Christine Dwyer defies gravity as the newfound Wicked Witch of the West. Photo: Joan Marcus Wicked  Who Famous Artists Broadway Where The Landmark Theatre; 362 S. Salina St., Syracuse When Through Dec. 9 Tickets $30-128 Review by Paige Cooperstein 

“Pink goes good with green,” Galinda, soon-to-be Glinda the Good Witch of Oz, tells Elphaba, before she becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. Glinda wore pink to the girls’ first college dance at Shiz University. Elphaba is an outcast because of her green skin, so Glinda decides to give her a makeover; she places her own pink barrette in Elphaba’s hair to help make her popular.

In the national tour of the musical Wicked, which runs at the Landmark Theatre through Dec. 9, Christine Dwyer plays Elphaba and Jeanna de Waal plays Glinda. These women prove just how well pink and green actually do go together. They portray the best friendship of the witches of Oz so well that their relationship is elevated to the level of sisterhood.

Dwyer and De Waal easily harmonize with each other in their duets. From “What is this Feeling?” when Elphaba and Glinda first meet as college roommates and dislike each other to the culmination of their relationship on “For Good.” It’s the song when they acknowledge how much they mean to one other, which reflects how siblings naturally complement each other.

The strength of connection between Dwyer and de Waal in the evolving relationship of Elphaba and Glinda proves integral to show’s success.

The way de Waal throws her body around illustrates an all-in commitment to a physical comedy that enhances the lines. She narrates, “Toss, toss” when she tosses her hair over her shoulder, and endearingly instructs Elphaba to do the same. De Waal bonds with Dwyer during the makeover scene as an older, wiser sister would with a younger sister. In a lovely moment of reversal, Dwyer’s Elphaba also takes on the role of the older sister to teach Glinda how to stick by her convictions, even if they prove unpopular.

Elphaba (Christine Dwyer) learns how to be popular from Glinda (Jeanna de Waal). Photo: Joan Marcus

The “untold story of the witches of Oz” feels at home in Central New York, a region with so many ties to Oz. L Frank Baum (whose initials, LFB, combine to give Elphaba her name) grew up in Chittenango, N.Y. before he went on to write, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900.

Gregory Maguire used Baum’s book as source material for his 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, telling the story of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s point of view. Maguire studied at State University of New York at Albany and donated the first handwritten pages of his novel to his alma mater.

Syracuse has further connection to the musical Wicked, written by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, with two Syracuse University graduates in the cast. Lauren Houghton, a 2004 musical theater graduate, is an understudy for Elphaba’s sister Nessarose. Jay Russell, a 1986 acting graduate, plays the goat professor Dr. Dillamond with balanced grace. One moment Russell earns esteem in his delivery of an articulate history lecture. In the next, he inhabits the goat side of Dillamond so precisely as to only twitch his lower lip over a pouting top lip while gobbling up some paper for lunch.

The costumes exhibit similar attention to detail. Costume designer Susan Hilferty deftly wields allusion to add an appropriate layer of whimsy to Wicked. In the opening number, “No One Mourns the Wicked,” the women in the ensemble come out in caricatured Victorian garb, complete with exaggerated peplums in unusual hues. That look, reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, emerges in the ensemble scenes in Oz as well, reinforced in the whitened faces with shocks of color on the eyes and cheeks that makeup designer Joe Dulude II used on the actors.

Dr. Dillamond (Jay Russell) is a loved history teacher who faces the abuses of animal intolerance. Photo: Joan Marcus

Gina Ferrall – playing the dean of Shiz University Madame Morrible with tremendous gusto – often wears makeup that calls to mind Ursula from The Little Mermaid, and de Waal’s Glinda takes a page out of several lively characters’ style books, including Cinderella, Tinkerbell (during some notable scenes in Oz), and, interestingly, Elle Woods (with whom Glinda shares her signature color of pink during her college years).

In signature Wicked songs, like “Popular” and “Defying Gravity,” de Waal and Dwyer unfortunately deliver underwhelming performances. The two certainly sing at a high-quality level – de Waal and Dwyer have clear, Broadway-ready voices – but their performances remain safe in a polished package, not wanting to break the boundaries of a technically measured delivery.

De Waal lacked the same breathy, sweet emphasis on the “u” of popular that Kristin Chenoweth pioneered for the song. She didn’t sing as if she were in on the joke of making Elphaba popular, “just not as popular as” herself. What de Waal did do with “Popular,” which worked very well, was to add a sultry voice that digs into a sexy jazz as the horns enter the song.

In “Defying Gravity,” Dwyer never hit the emotional climax on the high notes. She missed the silk normally present in “try” and “defy” as she sings, “I think I’ll try defying gravity.” And in the final height of the song, when she’s hoisted above the wizard’s guards on her broom, Dwyer failed to fully open up her voice and go beyond the bounds of her previous singing. It was all climb, no climax.

Perhaps because of the “oomph” from the show’s most popular tracks, the lesser-known songs from Wicked end up becoming highlights. De Waal commits to more range during “Thank Goodness,” where Glinda grapples with getting everything she thought she wanted. Dwyer performs “No Good Deed,” another second act gem, with harrowing agony.

Throughout Wicked, the  Landmark Theatre had a strong handle on their sound system. The show was well mixed, so that the orchestra didn’t overwhelm the voices. Even in ensemble pieces where enunciation sometimes gets lots in the presence of so many voices, every word rang out clearly. With the narrative strength of a show like Wicked, it was a good thing the Landmark was so well equipped to showcase it.