Natalie Daradich and Anne Brummel in Wicked (Joan Marcus)
It may have taken its sweet time getting here, but fans at the near-capacity Winnipeg premiere of Wicked seemed to feel it was worth the wait, bursting into applause before the opening notes of the 2003 mega-musical sounded.
And this is a "mega" musical - the original Broadway production is entering its eighth year, and the touring production now running here recently marked its 1,000th performance.
So the question is: is Wicked really that good?
Yes it is. And it isn't.
Let's begin with the "is." Wicked makes the most of its source material - Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, a dark, smart re-imagining of the early years of The Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West. Like the novel, Winnie Holzman's book for the musical is clever, and often has a wry humour - but also has a dark side, as it explores the concept of what "wicked" really is.
As it turns out for our heroine, Elphaba (the name Maguire gave to the green-skinned witch), "wicked" is what you become for stirring up trouble in the face of injustice. "Good," meanwhile, is the title given to the "good witch" Glinda - who, in this version of the story, becomes a college frenemy of Elphaba. She's good not in the sense of being decent, but more in a line-toeing "goody-goody" sense.
This story of good, evil, and the greys (and greens) in between plays out against a sumptuous backdrop - visually, Wicked is a spectacular spectacle. Eugene Lee's design is a series of stunning sets, framed by cogs, wheels, and a menacing steel dragon. Susan Hilferty costumes the 30-some member cast beautifully.
Of course, all the visual spectacle in the world doesn't amount to much if the performers aren't up to the task. Happily, they are. There's not a weak link in the bunch, but the show truly belongs to the leads - Toronto native Natalie Daradich, who wrings great humour out of Glinda the Good's clueless self-absorption; and Anne Brummel, who finds rich layers in the conflicted Elphaba. Both also have superb voices, particularly Brummel, who belts out Elphaba's solos with intensity.
Which brings up what is, surprisingly, Wicked's weakest link: the music. Stephen Schwartz (probably best known for writing Godspell) pens fine lyrics here, especially in the very funny Elphaba/Glinda duets "What Is This Feeling?" and "Popular." But most of the tunes rarely rise above workable. Only "Defying Gravity," the powerhouse Act I closer, really takes off musically, but there's no number here you're likely to leave the theatre singing to yourself.
But in spite of that significant handicap, Wicked still manages to deliver on its promise: it's solidly entertaining, wonderfully performed, and an absolute visual treat.
And that's not bad.