“Life’s more painless for the brainless.”
That line, sung by Fiyero in as he arrives at Shiz University held my mind under arrest in the days after a Thursday evening performance of Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked at Tampa’s David A. Straz Center for the performing arts.
There is no denying that the play, which debuted at the Great White Way in 2003, is a money making, back breaking blockbuster (Forbes says it’s grossed over $1 billion, and only Phantom of the Opera requires more load in as far as Broadway goes). Its story — an alternative to the narrative in 1939’s Wizard of Oz — is well known to anyone remotely interested in theater, and while the production’s merch booth resembles the ones I normally see at arena and amphitheatre concerts, Wicked is still a product that everyone deserves to see at least once, twice, even a dozen times. Its return to the Straz Center happens under the baton of Dan Micciche who tasks his five piece traveling ensemble with joining two handfuls of locals to make songs like “A Sentimental Man,” “Something Bad” and “Popular” come to life and deliver familiar messages of hatred, friendship and reconciliation for fans young and old.
Jessica Vosk, a captivating and very green Elphaba, reigns supreme, but her performance is still built upon the foundation of ones from a hilariously charming Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper) and Fiyero (Jeremy Woodard) who lean on Schwartz’s masterful pop arrangements to explain to the kids and adults in attendance that looking different doesn’t have to mean that your own talent, goals and dreams have to stay out of the conversation.
Cooper and Woodward — along with sad sap Boq (Andy Mientus), Nessarose (Kristen Martin) and Madam Morrible (Isabel Keating) — make their character virtues painstakingly obvious. It’s hard not to think about the audiences Wicked entertains as the cast works through a tale that includes themes like muzzling educators (poor Doctor Dillamond, played by Harry Bouvy), devotion (“As Long As You’re Mine” was especially moving) and the pitfalls of philanthropy (“No Good Deed”).
There are so many parallels between the issues Wicked addresses and the volatile state of world affairs. This play may be a leisure exercise for the privileged many who’ll walk through the figurative turnstile at the Straz Center, but you’ve got to hope that experiencing the production isn’t a brainless exercise in escapism. Life’s not painless, and theater shouldn’t be either.
Morsani Hall, Straz Center for the Performing Arts
1010 N. W.C. MacInnes Pl., Tampa.
Through Feb. 26