A ‘Wicked’ pleasure

A bit of surreal escapism before the coronavirus boom drops
Talia Suskauer as Elphaba in "Wicked." (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Editor’s Note: Due to concerns over COVID-19, starting March 13, the rest of the performances of “Wicked” at Overture are canceled.

There are a lot of surreal things about the uber-popular Broadway musical “Wicked”: the verdigris-skinned heroine, the talking goat-professor and the clever and interesting spins on the storyline and characters we thought we knew from L. Frank Baum’s quaint universe of Oz.

But there’s nothing quite as surreal as enjoying it inside the confines of the Overture Center for the Arts as, outside, a coronavirus pandemic continues to build. For perhaps the first and last time in modern history, it was possible to see Broadway in Madison — or, more specifically, the Thursday, March 12 touring production of “Wicked” — while all the actual Broadway theaters in New York are dark, having been declared closed by the mayor earlier in the day. Don’t ever let anybody tell you Madison’s not better than the Big Apple.

Overture Center remains one of a dwindling number of local arts venues to not proactively scrap its programming in favor of a social isolation strategy. So far, the gamble’s paying off, at least in terms of audience response. Last night’s house was as packed as it likely would have been if the world’s biggest problem was where the Badgers would be seeded in the NCAA Tournament.

And those who attended got their money’s worth.

Productions of “Wicked” soar (or conversely, melt into a messy puddle) on the strength of the actors playing Elphaba and Glinda, and this one’s got a couple of powerhouses. As the former, Talia Suskauer has both the power to belt the show’s signature hits and the range to land the quiet, underrated tunes like “I’m Not That Girl.” The moment when she thumbs her nose at Isaac Newton’s most famous law and goes airborne remains as iconic as ever, a spectacle worthy of applause even before she sings the bridge of the song.

Allison Bailey, meanwhile, plays her Glinda-with-a-Ga by leaning into her role’s most meringue-y character traits, bouncing into her flounces, tossing her hair and leaning into vocal affectations with the elan of an overcaffeinated gopher. That she’s still able to do this without sacrificing any sympathy for her character is a spell that’d impress even the frowsy Madame Morrible (Sharon Sachs).

What drives the bus here is the relationship between the two witches and frenemies. Suskauer and Bailey do a great job shifting from one interaction to another. It’s harder not to let real world current events remind us of the way so many of the students at Shiz University blithely ignore what’s happening to Oz’s animal population even when it’s going down right in front of their eyes. In a case of life imitating art, everyone, onstage and off, is shutting their eyes a little in order to keep humming along.

Or, more accurately, to focus on the production’s many visual spectacles. The set still feels like a magic box that never runs out of surprises to show us. The clock-gear side panels open to reveal everything from fields of projected poppies to fields of green LEDs signifying the famous Emerald City. It runs like clockwork, too, as the show never breaks stride to change scenes.

There are a few discordant touches. Cleavant Derrick plays the Wizard as a bumbling, aw-shucks huckster, a move that boosts some sympathy for his character but makes the notion of his being a criminal mastermind capable of ruling and enslaving Oz a hell of a lot less credible, even as his kindly demeanor makes him harder to hate.

Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.