By MIKE CHAIKEN
To paraphrase the song from “The Sound of Music,” how do you solve a problem like Idina and Kristen?
The trajectory toward success for most Broadway musicals will be influenced by the actors cast in the major roles. After all, if the actors are wrong, audiences will be turned off, and will stay away.
But if the actors are right, especially in a show’s early days, they help set the stage for continuing success on the Great White Way… and in the afterlife of national road tours.
Although actors do set the stage for success and popularity, in most cases, the brand becomes the show, not the individual performers.
There are times, however, when the performers become so identified with the role, they literally become the brand.
For instance, take the musical “The Producers.” It managed to have some success in its Broadway afterlife. However, in New York, it never really recovered after Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who defined the leads, went on to other projects. The show closed shortly after Lane and Broderick—the brands of the show— departed.
“Wicked” is another such musical. The show itself is a pleasure. The book—based on the retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” by novelist Gregory Maguire— is fun. And the music is uplifting, touching, powerful, and, most importantly, memorable.
But the show still is imprinted, in some audience members’ minds, with the DNA of Kristen Chenoweth, who performed the original role of Glinda (The Good Witch), and Idina Menzel, who performed as Elphaba (The Wicked Witch).
So it’s daunting as hell for any actress to step into those roles in this musical created by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book).
For actresses, however, the characters are a dream come true and are worth the challenge. After all, you have two strong female roles— which is still a rarity in musical theater— who have a chance to belt out some of the best showstoppers in Broadway history.
Fortunately for the audiences, and for themselves, the actresses Laurel Harris (Elphaba) and Kara Lindsay (Glinda) in the current national tour of the show, which continues at The Bushnell in Hartford through Nov. 23, have crafted performances that offer a nod to Chenoweth and Menzel yet build upon those roots and offer up their own individual (and rousing) takes on the characters.
Harris clearly has perfected the comical “slow burn.” Her character, especially, in the beginning of the tale, is more reserved. But Harris is able to speak volumes with a mere facial expression and her body language. And from this initial reserve, we are more delighted when Elphaba’s passion finally is set free.
Vocally, Harris also delivered a bravura performance at the Nov. 6 performance in Hartford.
The song “Defying Gravity” is always going to be a “wow” moment in the show as long as the chosen performer is able to deliver the right notes. But Harris builds upon the framework of the song, and turns it into an explosion. When the curtain comes down at the end of the first half, you’re left breathless by her take on the song.
Mind you, Harris was not a one-moment performer. “The Wizard and I” under Harris’s guidance, overflowed with youthful hope and yearning. And every time, Harris began to sing in the show, your heart stirred.
Lindsay was an absolute delight as well at The Bushnell. While Harris played straight man, Lindsay plunged headlong into the physical comedy of the clown. Her performance of the popular “Popular” was great, energetic fun, and another highlight of the show. And she easily managed to make you forget all about Chenoweth’s iconic take on the song.
But lest you think Lindsay entrenched herself in the roll of the buffoon, like Harris, her performance skillfully portrayed the character’s growth. She believably transformed Glinda from the bubbly ditz to the loyal friend and confident, and finally an impassioned figure of authority, albeit a bit quirky.
Like Elphaba, Glinda also has her “Wicked” musical showstoppers. And Lindsay was well-equipped to handle them. There’s “Popular,” of course. But her handling of the reprise of “I’m Not That Girl” was stirring as was her duet with Harris, “For Good.”
There was so much to like in this energetic, propulsive production directed by Joe Mantello, it’s hard to list it all.
But the bottom line is that if you have a chance to catch this extended run of the national road tour of “Wicked” at The Bushnell, get your tickets quickly. There wasn’t a single empty seat left at the Bushnell on Nov. 6.
I give “Wicked” four out of four stars.
Performances at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, are on Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
For tickets or more information, go to Bushnell.org or call (860) 987-5900.
By MIKE CHAIKEN