There's a new witch in town. Name: Ana Gasteyer. Resume: "Saturday Night Live," "Mean Girls," The Groundlings, Northwestern University. Sings: Pretty well. Acts: Very well. Comic timing: Priceless.
In "Wicked," portraying flying green animal-rights activist Elphaba, the birdlike Gasteyer can do more with a one-word punch line especially when the word is "blond" than most witches could do with a book of potions and a heap of Stephen Schwartz power ballads. Gasteyer gives the new Chicago edition of this musical a distinct and affecting personality.
Is Gasteyer a powerhouse vocalist? No. Stephanie Block, an excellent Elphaba in the show's touring edition seen in Chicago this spring, managed to bring nuance, shading and a killer belt to a set of slobbery, emotionally blathering numbers while keeping the non-singing scenes honest and true. Gasteyer's pipes are different, and less powerful. But Gasteyer knows how to use what she has. She's a very canny singer-actress, with unusually astute instincts for timing a zinger.
Block's "Wicked" national touring company sold well enough here in a six-week engagement to persuade the producers to create an open-ended Chicago production. The touring cast then went off to another city, leaving the scenery behind at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre. A new "Wicked" company, featuring a few Chicago performers and a lot of New York ones, began performances June 12. It opened officially Wednesday. On July 24, tickets go on sale for performances through Jan. 15, 2006. It could run a year or more.
I base that prediction on seeing "Wicked" three times in three productions and three different "whoooo! WHOOOO! YEAHHHHHH!"-type reactions from three different audiences. My own reaction is more like "Eh." Or: "Uh. OK. This scene in Act 2 is losing its mind, it doesn't know if it's trying to be funny, or serious, or OK, this must be what's left of whatever got cut in tryouts. "
While not as strongly sung as the national touring edition, the Chicago edition offers considerable visual bang for your considerable buck, and a few interesting wrinkles castwise. The production, directed by Joe Mantello, remains a large, confident, don't-mess-with-me-I'm-a-hit enterprise. The most magical moment in an otherwise clamorous show, paradoxically, is the quietest: Elphaba's broomstick floating on stage from the wings, ready to meet its owner.
The production is one thing, the material another matter entirely. The latter does not matter, at least not to thousands of "Wicked" fans. However lurching in tone, the story simply pushes too many of the right buttons. The buttons are labeled "Lots of Shiny Stuff," "Built-In Wizard of Oz Fan Base" and "Shameless Emotional Appeal to Teenage Girls of All Ages and Either Gender."
Primarily, "Wicked" is a witch musical, playing relentlessly into self-esteem issues of the young and insecure, or the older and insecure who still remember what it was like to be insecure and younger. As Elphaba, the misunderstood sorceress who uncovers something sinister beneath the glittering surface of Oz, Gasteyer lends this bombastic musical a welcome dose of comic tang. She is a busy performer from the neck up: She's a darter, a quick-glance-and-away type, but the technique works well for Elphaba's shy side. She also knows how to modulate her performance for the messy second act's older, wiser, sexually awakening Elphaba. Kate Reinders as Glinda is quite good, although verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry much in the mode of Kristen Chenoweth, who originated the role.
Some performers register more powerfully than their touring company counterparts. Kristoffer Cusick turns callow hunk Fiyero into a loose-limbed, inventively detailed character, his splayed-leg, rubber-limbed dance moves foreshadowing his eventual fate. Heidi Kettenring is Broadway quality all the way as Nessarose, Elphaba's sister. In a variety of bit roles, another Chicagoan, Jeff Dumas, shows how it's done, whatever he's doing.
The key Chicagoans on view are Rondi Reed, who makes a strong, no-nonsense Madame Morrible, and Gene Weygandt, who lends a sprightly physicality to the Wizard. It must be said that Weygandt, among others, struggled to stay on pitch Wednesday night. He and Reed and a few others may, in fact, be waging their own private struggles to make their roles interesting. But this is "Wicked," the hit that can't be bothered with its own considerable flaws.