Olivia Valli in the National Tour of Wicked. Photo: Joan-Marcus
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire
Part of the PNC Broadway in Louisville series
A review by Tory Parker
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Tory Parker. All rights reserved.
I work downtown (stay with me). More specifically, I work on the 600th block of West Main Street (this is relevant I swear.) That’s significant because Kentucky Performing Arts is on the 500th block of West Main Street, and when the Broadway tours are in town, that sometimes means my average little walks downtown are peppered with sudden, random sightings of hot, entirely UN-Louisville dressed 20-something triple threats poking around our dear Derby City. It’s a delight; they’re so easy to spot amongst buttoned up bank tellers and Humana employees. And I think about how they’re getting a little coffee to get away from work and I am ALSO getting a little coffee to get away from work, and we’re really not that different, huh.
“Tory, what does ANY of this have to do with Wicked?” Ok, you want a review of the National Tour of Wicked currently playing in Louisville?? Ok, fine! It’s spectacular. It still absolutely slaps, it hits, it’s magical. It’s got all the razzle and dazzle you could possibly want and more. But you KNEW that, because it’s WICKED and that’s it’s whole thing. You think I’m going to go into the specifics of the staging and creative choices of *Wicked* for the readers of Arts-Louisville, when I would bet my life savings most of you have not only seen Wicked, MORE THAN ONCE, but you have a favorite Elphaba. More than that, I bet you have a favorite RECORDING (slime tutorial) OF that Elphaba singing Defying Gravity.
I’ve seen Wicked three times before this–first in Los Angeles in 2008, then twice in London in 2015. I was also a Gleek from 2009 – 2014 (always in recovery), so I absorbed a lot of Wicked fan content by osmosis. I never really had a Wicked phase, like so many brave soldiers my age did-–we have always been a Les Mis household—but I enjoyed the music and how much it meant to some of my friends.
So why was I crying the *second* Elphaba walked on stage?? It was a shadow version of earlier this summer when I immediately broke down at Taylor Swift’s Era’s Tour at the opening chords of the song “Fearless” off the album of the same name. I was around the same age I saw Wicked for the first time as when I saw Taylor Swift live for the “Fearless” tour. 15 years ago, life sprawled out ahead of me, and just for this moment, I was part of the thing everyone was so excited about. “We were both young when I first saw you.”
But it wasn’t the thought of being young that made me cry—it was the thought of our Elphaba, the immaculate Olivia Valli—being young that made me cry. Valli and I are the same age. I can bet, with little to no uncertainty, that the instrument Valli has and wields so beautifully is in no small part because of Wicked. For people with her range and her talent, it is THE role. And when she came on stage in that iconic blue dress and long braid and blue cap, the armor that hundreds of Elphies before her have worn into the cataclysm that is their DREAM, it’s like you can feel all of that coming to a beautiful, potent point.
And on the other side of our coin is Celia Hottenstein, who is so perfectly in her element as Glinda, it feels like a necessary and natural conclusion that she would play this part. She is all charm and effervescence, too childlike and naive to scorn, and too full of genuine love to hate. Watching them together is as heartwarming and heartbreaking as it was 20 years ago, when the show first exploded onto the scene. Wicked includes a romance, with the suave, charismatic Christian Thompson as Fieryo, but the real love story is between these two women.
But how do you keep a musical that hasn’t changed in its 20 consecutive years (on Broadway and on tour) from feeling tired? Well, it happens to be pretty easy, because the thing about Wicked is it wasn’t flash-in-the-pan good or “of the moment” good. It’s actually good. And you keep it fresh and interesting by assembling companies of actors and creatives who keep finding those nuggets of brilliance and truth that make it good, relevant, and smart. You listen for the echoes of our own world as the anthropomorphized Dr. Dillamond (played by larger-than-life wonder Boise Holmes) is stripped of his teaching position and his literal voice for telling the truth about history and the violent erasure of his own kind. If you’re Hottenstein and Valli, you bring your own spastic, off-the-wall comedic bimbo energy to “Popular” and your own earth-shattering, optioned-up high notes (I see you, queen) and revelatory breakthroughs to “Defying Gravity.” Then, two songs so iconic in the musical theatre canon that they practically define the genre, feel like they’re being done for the first time.
20 years later, and there are kids in the audience who are hearing those songs for the first time, and it’s rewiring their brains. Ask anyone in that cast, I know they could tell you their first Elphaba or their first Glinda. For every person in that audience revisiting an old friend, there is someone getting to experience “No Good Deed” live for the first time, or gasping at the transformation of Boq (Kyle McArthur), or the murder of the tragically beautiful, complicated Nessa (Tara Kostmayer). There are sweet tweens swooning over Fiyero and shy, awestruck teenage girls who see a head-reeling, face-flushing “friendship” with another girl at school who changes their life for the better and clocks that as a feeling…other than loathing.
There is magic to be found in Wicked, and there always has been. Go see this phenomenal production in Louisville while you can. And I look forward to seeing the cast on Main Street for the next few weeks, knowing that when they go back to work after getting their little coffee, they’re making someone’s dream come true—maybe even their own.
September 20 – October 8, 2023
Part of the PNC Broadway in Louisville series
Whitney Hall at Kentucky Performing Arts
501 W Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Tory Parker, originally from West Virginia, is now a proud Kentuckian as well. In Louisville, she’s worked and/or performed with Actors Theatre of Louisville, Claddagh Theatre Company, the Chamber Theatre, Bellarmine University, Wayward Actors Company, Derby City Playwrights, Company OutCast, SHOTZ, Highview Arts Center, and director Emily Grimany. She is a co-founding artist of the queer theatre collaborative, three witches shakespeare. As a playwright, her full length drama, Recommended for You, appears in Stage It and Stream It: Plays for Virtual Theatre, and her original works have appeared in the National Women’s Theatre Festival Fringe Festival.