Big Broadway shows that tour for ever and ever are built on templates that guarantee one thing above all else — that the audience gets exactly what it wants.
That was certainly the case Thursday night at the Music Hall, where the road company of “Wicked” had the audience on its feet before the curtain call.
We all know Kansas Citians are a soft touch for standing ovations, but on Thursday you could feel an electricity in the air that only devoted fans can generate.
This touring production of “Wicked” looks and sounds like the first company that played Kansas City a few years ago. The meticulously crafted and inventively designed show works like precision machinery, providing visceral laughs and excretions of sentimentality at specific moments to tug the audience along, no matter where or when you see it. The director, Joe Mantello, has a long, lucrative history of creating hits.
Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel that re-imagines the events of “The Wizard of Oz,” the show is a colorful, noisy affair. Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz contributes tunes that frequently threaten to become memorable, while Winnie Holzman’s book delivers potent laugh lines, even if she crams too much plot into the piece.
The material basically delivers the back stories of the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch, magic-school roommates who learn to love and respect each other despite having virtually nothing in common. Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch, has green skin, wears funereal colors and is a social misfit. Glinda is blonde, wears white and dazzles everyone with her beauty.
As the show unfolds, it explains the creation of the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow, the significance of the ruby slippers and lets us see Nessarose, Elphaba’s younger sister who becomes the Wicked Witch of the East before she meets her demise beneath a falling Kansas farmhouse. We also meet the Wizard, a flimflam man who, it turns out, is stunned to discover his unknown connection to Elphaba. Much of this is inherently amusing and delivered with appreciable wit.
Of chief interest in this production to local audiences is the presence of Hayley Podschun, an experienced Broadway actress who grew up in Overland Park. I’d never seen Podschun in a principal role before and she delivers a superior comic performance, full of spontaneous moments and inventive surprises. She exhibits a sharp instinct for physical humor and possesses a stunning voice.
Her counterpart is Jennifer DiNoia, who handles the role of Elphaba with a strong stage presence and a powerful set of pipes. She makes the character’s inner sorrow and anger palpable, thus anchoring the show with a respectable degree of dramatic weight.
We also find nice supporting performances from Emily Behny as vengeful Nessarose; Alex Wyse as Boc, the Munchkin; Kathy Fitzgerald as the bombastic Madame Morrible; John Hillner as Doctor Dillamond, a professorial goat who is hustled away by the secret police during a talking-animal crackdown; and David Nathan Perlow as Fiyero, who loves Elphaba (while being pursued by Glinda) and ultimately meets a bleak metaphysical fate in a cornfield.
To nitpick is a critic’s prerogative and I still find this show too long, with a score that turns to hyper-melodrama when a memorable melody can’t be found.
That said, “Popular” is a fine musical-comedy number and the blistering “No Good Deed” is a high point of Act 2.