It happens at the end of every year: we mutter and moan about the state of our theater -- whether it's worth our time, interest, and hard-earned money. We worry about whether the theater should or should not be more representative, responsive, and reflective (any more R's out there?) of the real world. Of course 2003 was no exception. There was the usual number of weak, what-were-they-thinking-of plays and musicals such as "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks," "The Look of Love," and "Laughing Room Only," now mercifully gone and almost forgotten. Yet I also hear a small voice within reminding me how much richer I am for having seen such plays as "Anna in the Tropics," "The Violet Hour," "I Am My Own Wife," "Henry IV," and such engaging musical fare as "Wicked," "Avenue Q," and "Caroline, or Change."
This last, "Caroline, or Change," at Off-Broadway's Public Theater, is head and shoulders above any other musical in town. It is a new, autobiographical, sung-through musical with a brilliant libretto by Tony Kushner (of growing "Angels in America" fame). Kushner's story about growing up in Louisiana in the mid 1960s, and his relationship with the family's black maid, is accompanied by a wonderfully eclectic score by Jeanine Tesori ("Thoroughly Modern Millie").
This was surely the year that gay sex ("The Boy From Oz," "Taboo," "I Am My Own Wife"), puppets having sex ("Avenue Q"), and even gay puppets having sex (Paula Vogel's extraordinarily poetic, but oppressively depressing, "The Long Christmas Ride Home"), distressed the conservatives among us. It was also the year that even the liberals gave thumbs down to a number of British imports. These included the dull "Vincent in Brixton" and the dopey "The Play What I Wrote".
The most recent arrival from the UK is William Nicholson's memory play, "The Retreat from Moscow," about his parents' disintegrating marriage, made interesting only by the memorable performances of Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow.
It has been more than a decade since two plays by the same author were running simultaneously on Broadway. Richard Greenberg, the Princeton alumnus (Class of 1980) who garnered a Best Play Tony for "Take Me Out," delivered another fine play, "The Violet Hour" (recently closed), about the relativity of time, the choices we make, and their consequences. This production from the Manhattan Theater Club was their first at their new home, the elegantly restored Biltmore Theater.
Speaking of opening new theaters, Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz's passionate and lyrical "Anna in the Tropics," winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, now playing on Broadway, opened the handsome Roger Berlind Theater at Princeton's McCarter Theater Center. Berlind is also producer of "Anna's" Broadway production. McCarter has previously produced new plays by both the talented Greenberg and Cruz.
It doesn't happen very often that a playwright gets to see his very first play produced on Broadway. It was a pity that there wasn't more public support last spring for Matthew Barber's charming adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim's 1922 novel "Enchanted April." Nowadays it is more likely that a new play will transfer to a Broadway theater only after it has proved itself Off-Broadway. This is the case with two well-received, one-person plays: William Gibson's "Golda's Balcony," in which Tovah Feldshuh gives an impressive portrayal of the late Israeli Prime Minister, and Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife," in which Jefferson Mays stunningly transforms himself to play the German transvestite spy Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Although tne-person plays have a low overhead, it didn't seem to help Ellen Burstyn's sweet showcase, "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," stay open past its first night (I liked it). Another play that has the potential for a Broadway transfer is Amy Freed's "The Beard of Avon," a riotous yet scholarly farce about the true authorship of Will Shakespeare's canon.
Don't complain about having too many revivals of great plays and musicals. As we get older, it's good to remember that new generations should not be deprived of the best in dramatic literature. We can generally depend upon the Roundabout Theater for a fine revival of a Pinter play. Director David Jones used a light touch with "The Caretaker," which has sterling performances by Patrick Stewart, Kyle MacLachlan, and Aidan Gillen. And it's worth the price of admission just to see Margo Martindale, as Big Mama, and Ned Beatty, as Big Daddy, in "A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (and at least Ashley Judd and Jason Patric are easy on the eyes).
Broadway gave a warm welcome to gussied up 1983's "Little Shop of Horrors" and streamlined version of 1953's "Wonderful Town." You could pray for a miracle that the extraordinary Lincoln Center production of Shakespeare's "Henry IV Parts 1 & 2" (with Kevin Kline giving the performance of his career as Falstaff), is extended past its announced closing on January 18.
Many people still believe that what Broadway does best is sing and dance. If that's the case, you might consider "Never Gonna Dance," a new musical based on the 1936 Astaire/Rogers movie, "Swingtime," with old songs by Jerome Kern and new choreography by Jerry Mitchell. However, you're never gonna see a more magical musical than this season's brand-new "Wicked," a treat for the whole family.
Have you heard that somewhere beyond the rainbow is the dark side of Oz, where witches are not easily defined as either good or bad, where beauty can be skin deep as well as green, but mostly where all the background is prepared for Dorothy's visit. It is all within Gregory Maguire's novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," a cleverly conceived (I am told) prequel to Frank L. Baum's beloved children's classic "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," which, of course, led to the film "The Wizard of Oz."
In the sumptuous and ambitious new $14 million musical "Wicked," based on Maguire's novel, there is only a respectful, but amusing, nod to Baum's heroine Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion. But the musical collaborators, Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics), Winnie Holzman (book) and supported by Joe Mantello's amazing direction, have accomplished much more than a respectable job in re-envisioning this darker Oz for the stage. They have created Oz not only as a land where monkeys and witches fly and making magic is almost commonplace, but also as a place where the fantastical is corruptible.
If that sounds a little heavy going for a musical that clearly will attract children as well as adults, it is, at times. Not having read the novel, I can't attest to whether the musical copies the same satirical thrust of the novel, but I would wager that the campy tone that buoys the text when it gets a bit too moralizing is probably unique to the musical. What is also genuinely unique to this musical is the pairing of Kristin Chenoweth, who plays Glinda nee Galinda, the good witch, and Idina Menzel, who plays the wicked witch Elphaba. These two extraordinary musical theater talents get equal opportunities to create performance magic.
Petite and luminous, blonde and lovely, Chenoweth has not only a coloratura to die for but nails every laugh as the enchantingly self-adulating Glinda. Green-skinned Menzel sets the stage ablaze with her belting soprano and riveting portrayal of the unjustly maligned Elphaba.
While both Glinda and Elphaba, seen as friends since childhood, have their individual personality flaws, rivalry and conflicted alliances, they are joined in a sisterhood that ultimately triumphs. One scene in which Glinda, who is still learning to use her wand, tries wholeheartedly to turn Elphaba into someone pretty and "Popular" (one of the best songs in the show) is a howl and one of the show's many highlights.
For savvy adults and mature children, the musical, told in flashback from the point where the farm house lands on and kills Alphaba's sister witch Nessarose, unfolds with large dollops of humor dropped into Glinda's retelling of Alphaba's journey to this point. The journey reveals Glinda as not quite as good as she could be, and Elphaba, as an outcast and animal activist who is soon embittered when her idealism is denounced in a land ruled by political correctness, racism, and a corrupt government.
"Wicked" weaves just enough thematic elements from the more familiar "Oz" stories into the text to keep the faithful happy and the uninitiated curious and attentive. Although the plot is dense with convoluted twists and turns (notwithstanding the comforting, although brief, appearance of the yellow brick road), it is also wry and intelligent enough to withstand scrutiny. For many of us, just finding out why the wicked witch is green, how the monkeys got to fly, and what made Elphaba wicked is worth the steep price of admission.
There are many worthy supporting roles. Carole Shelley is terrific as Madame Morrible, the duplicitous head mistress at the school for sorcery that Glinda attends and where she first meets Elphaba. Sent there initially by her unloving parents to watch over her crippled sister Nessarose (Michelle Federer), Elphaba becomes Glinda's roommate and lifelong friend.
The school boasts a goat-professor who is soon victimized (tenderly portrayed by William Youman). Then there is a Prince Fiyero (played with charm to spare by Norbert Leo Butz), who is loved by both Glinda and Elphaba; an engaging Munchkin (Christopher Fitzgerald), and, of course, the most endearing and expectedly ineffectual Wizard of Oz, played with consummate panache by Joel Grey. Grey gets to perform a lovely song and dance number called "A Sentimental Man," that smacks of "Mr. Cellophane" (from "Chicago"), but he's a charmer and it works.
Schwartz' rich and possibly too vibrant score contains songs that will please upon first hearing, but also reflects the fury of contemporary theater compositions that rely more on exclamatory sound than on melodic sincerity. The production, under Mantella's direction, is an eye-filling spectacle of imaginative effects, including a huge smoke-exhaling dragon, flying monkeys, witches, and soaring scenery by set designer Eugene Lee and Paul Rubin/ZFX, for the flying sequences. Now if you only had a magic wand to get you seats. Three stars -- you won't feel cheated.
Wicked, Gershwin Theater, 222 West 51st Street, New York. $40 to $100. Ticketmaster 800-755-4000 or 212-307-4100.