Sunday, March 29, 2009

That Was One Wicked Musical

No Gamestorm for me this year again, thanks to my wife's work schedule. Next year, I am going to ask her to take the day off so that I can go to the convention on Saturday, and in fact may get a room rather than have to make what can be a 90 minute drive if traffic goes terribly terribly wrong. 

So what did I do this year while the rest of my gaming group went to the only local gaming con in the immediate area? On Friday, I went to visit my granddaughter. On Saturday, I played a Combat Commander scenario from Stalingrad with my friend Connor (and won a close one through fortuitous Advance draws - again), and today I went with my family to go see the traveling production of the hit musical Wicked!, which is currently playing in Portland. My wife wanted to go see it, and my brother had gotten tickets for my mother, so I got to go to.

Understand, I don't like modern musical theater. Not to put too fine point on this, but I'm not a gay man, I'm not a pre-teen or teen girl, and I'm not a pre-teen or teen gay boy. There is no doubt in my mind that Wicked was specifically produced for these demographics, especially based on the audience at Keller Auditorium. I'm not saying there's a thing wrong with being in one of these demographics, just that I'm not in them and as such musical theater isn't being written for me. In much the same way that rap music is not being written for me. I'm just saying, this isn't something I'd go to were there not some other reason for me to be there. That will help explain why I was definitely happy when the curtain went down.

I will say that I find the musicals of Stephen Sondheim to be very enjoyable (especially Sweeney Todd), and I have performed in the chorus of two Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as well as playing in the orchestra (in fact, as the orchestra) for a college production of Evita, and was musical director for Quilters. I also have a certain fondness for panto productions, and I love opera (and have seen productions in Sydney and New York). I just feel that most musical theater is about spectacle, target demographics, and has very little to do with interesting music, bold themes, or vocal technique learned from watching too much American Idol. 

Wicked did not disappoint in that regard. The musical, based on the book of the same name, turns the Wizard of Oz on it's head, showing the Wicked Witch of the West from her point of view. I don't think I'm giving a lot away when I say that she goes "bad" (in the eyes of the authorities) when she becomes an animal rights activist after the Wizard of Oz decides to start helping the citizens of Oz gain stability by taking away the ability of animals to speak. 

That's an extremely flimsy story to build off of, but it's pretty robust compared to most stories in the genre, which are really an excuse to sell soundtrack albums. In fact, in the first half there are all sorts of entertaining moments, especially when Glinda tries to make-over Elsepha (the WWotW). At our production, we had the understudy for the role of Glinda, but I have to tell you that she was fantastic with her physical comedy and stage presence, and I think we'll see more of her in the future. The woman playing Elsepha was also quite good, with very strong movements when called for but not as much frenetic energy as Glinda, making a nice contrast. 

The rest of the cast was also good, although the heroic male lead (the rich ne'er do well who develops a conscience as the play progresses) was neither a dancer nor a singer, unless the sort of N'Sync vocal histronics he did during the big love duet was the sort of thing you enjoy (and I, not being a 14 year old girl, do not). He was big and good looking and could read lines, but he has a limited repertoire and I can't see him gaining much more fame than where he's at now. 

The second half of the story left me flat. The break comes as Elsepha (forgive me if I have the names wrong, I didn't save the program) learns that the Wizard is behind animals losing their voices and rebels, and the second half tracks closely to the story, consisting of more or less a laundry list of in-jokes and mini-stories of how the various characters in the story become who they are, from the Wicked Witch, East Edition, to the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man. Most of these are silly at best, insulting at worst, and in fact many don't track with the story we see on stage because some characters (such as the Scarecrow) are created *after* Dorothy has moved on down the YBR. Yeah, it's not the point, but they all seemed like manufactured plot devices just so that all the bases got covered. 

In the end, Glinda regrets her choices, takes control of Oz, kicks out the Wizard, and imprisons the headmistress of the munchkin school who was complicit in the various Stability Initiatives put into place that Elsepha rebelled against. I'm sorry to say that there is also a happy ending, so in other words, no one ends up sacrificing unless you consider the Scarecrow isn't as good looking as he was. 

Like every musical produced since Andrew Lloyd Webber was coronated God some years ago, the singing is what can charitably be termed "brassy". To me, it's like nails on a chalkboard after three hours. Glinda, who arguably was the only character who should have been singing in that style, took it to a new level. Elsepha was better, but when duetting with Glinda (which was often) she lapsed into the same style in order to blend. I particularly hate this style because every freakin' vocal major wannabe entering into college programs auditions with that style and with a Broadway song, and the same applies to the handful of men and the scoopalicious  N'Sync style. I sat in on auditions regularly when I was a Masters student, and it was excruciating for pretty much everyone. It's loud, it's covering for a lack of sensitivity and skill, and it's teaching multiple generations of singers to require amplification to be heard past the sixth row (the projection element is poor, and in fact everyone on stage in this production was amplified). We can talk about the low "entertainment" value of opera singers and how they tend to stand and deliver, but the simple fact is that opera singers are rarely amplified, and to do what they do requires not only a tremendous amount of talent and effort, but few people in the world can really do it. To my ear, everyone thinks they can sing Broadway tunes. At least, they think they can. 

The stagecraft was quite good, with lots of interesting framing, good use and reuse of stage elements throughout, and the effects didn't take over the show the way that f*cking chandelier does in Phantom ("Oooh! Did you see the chandelier!?" Like there was nothing else in the show). The sound was very good, a bit of a surprise considering that the mixing board was located under the balcony where the sound quality couldn't have been very good. The orchestra was made up of a set of local wind and brass players (notoriously difficult to emulate with samplers), four keyboards hooked up to laptops with special software to keep them on track for where in the show they are, down to the measure number (!), a guitarist, a drummer, in a sound booth, and a percussionist. They did a great job, although I kept thinking that whoever came up with the sound palette for this show was massively hard for 80's pop and the sound of the DX7. Keyboardists everywhere are giggling right now, but the rest of you don't care - think tinkly bell-like timbres and you'll know what I mean. I remember reading about how Cats used a few Prophet-5 synths on tour with specific patches, but of course that was a long time ago and a setting of the knobs on one keyboard wasn't necessarily exactly the same as what you'd get on another, and how that was a bit of a problem (not to mention how you'd keep those sounds into the future). The problem is still out there, but since music tech hasn't changed much other than moving onto laptops (it's all samples and a handful of synthesis techniques from acoustic modeling to subtractive), I'm guessing they'll be able to hang onto these sounds for a longer period, whereas some productions of Cats still require 25-year-old P-5s. 

I also have to give the show props for teaching that sometimes authority is not concerned with the greater good, even if they themselves are simply trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. Not that I believe Dick Cheney did *anything* for anyone's good but himself and those around him, mind you. It also showed that the person painted as a "terrorist" sometimes is not at all. That's a very powerful message right now as we consider releasing all of those people we tortured at Gitmo. Considering this musical was written in 2003, and the book in 1995, it was incredibly forward looking and clearly a message that I hope to god we've finally learned. Ha. 

I will also give huge props to the casting choices that led to a lead character who has an actual normal female body. Elsepha, of course, not Glinda (who is skinny skinny skinny). They are both redeemed at the end, although Elsepha arguably never required it, and of course the base message is that your appearance doesn't dictate your ethics. Still, Elsepha was anything but skinny, and that's a message that I feel very strongly about now that I have a granddaughter who will have to grow up with continuing difficult image imprinting as she grows up. 

If you like musical theater, even Spamalot, this is probably worth your time if you don't mind the astronomical ticket prices, the lobby that looks like what Jesus must have seen at the Temple with all of the moneylenders (food! t-shirts! product tie-in crap!) - it took me ten minutes to negotiate all of the suburbanites out for quality time with their daughters in the lobby just to hit the head. At one point my wife called me a snob (I think I was the sole person in the entire theater wearing a dress jacket), and I replied that in an audience like this, I had every right. 

That, and audiences in Portland will give a standing ovation to a dancing seal. Yes, you paid an incredible amount of cash for your tickets (ours were nearly $100 each), but that doesn't mean you stand when a decent production comes to town. They do it at every Oregon Symphony Orchestra concert too, no matter how good the music was. I try not to stand on principal, but sometimes you've got to do it. Like when your 86 year old mother wants to stand up. 

Oh well, at least I kept my opinions to myself to the rest of my family. I'm pretty sure I ruined Phantom for my sister years ago when she asked how I liked it and I compared it to root canal. Hey, she asked. 

Not that *you* asked, but then if you've gotten this far I figure at least I've been entertaining.


Ken said...

My wife was there today. She came home and went to sleep.

Matthew said...

Interesting. This was on my radar.

I think the standing ovation thing is like grade inflation since the 70s. It's broader than Portland. Standing ovation seems to be the default response now from NYC to Ashland. Drives Jen crazy. 4 out of 5 times we just shrug and sit there, clapping politely. Don't see too many curtain calls anymore - just the backs of the people in front of us...

Chris Brooks said...

Dude, 90 minute commute? I commuted Fri, Sat, Sun (with Friday morning rush hour, thought it *was* spring break) and it was 35 minutes door to door from Sherwood. Given your proximity to I-5, I bet your commute might even be less. Stop your moaning! ;-)

Dug said...

I'm delighted you had an easy trip out. I may have more experience with this trip than you, as I played in a band for several months that rehearsed not far from the venue, and I had to give myself an hour travel time just in case - and frequently arrived late at rehearsal anyway. That included Sunday mornings after singing at my downtown Portland church. From Wilsonville, I'd give it 90 minutes if I had to be somewhere at a specific time, as most of the events at Gamestorm require. Sounds like you hit the best case scenario all three days, which is great. And yes, Friday did have light traffic (we were in Vancouver, just near 205 instead of 5).

Mike said...

On the Friday morning, I went door to door in 40 minutes (217/26/I-5), despite the 'rush hour' traffic, and getting there/back at off-peak times was around 25 minutes. Then again, on a Friday afternoon it _can_ be 90 minutes.