One of the most enjoyable aspects of experiencing a large scale touring Broadway production at ASU Gammage in Tempe is the response of the audience. Point in question: Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. Everything about it is big. The score is epic, the stage required is huge, and the packed house is overwhelmingly vocally responsive. Without question, valley audiences love grand scale musicals, and more importantly they love to show it.
From the opening bars of the Overture right up until the final moment when two important characters walk off to face their uncertain future together, ASU’s opening week audience did what it always does. It cheered, it roared, it occasionally screamed and it thunderously applauded. The whole affair is practically gladiatorial, and there’s four more weeks to go. Here’s my bet, and it’s the safest one I’ll ever make: it’ll be like that every night, guaranteed. Valley audiences are among the most demonstrative in the country, and being a part of it only adds to the fun of turning a show into a large scale event.
Another safe bet: chunks of the audience will have seen Wicked before. At this point, most should be familiar with the setup of the musical and how it tells the story of what happened in the Land of Oz, seen not from the point of view of a certain little girl from Kansas and her dog Toto but from the Wicked Witch of the West. Evidently, original author Frank L. Baum must have got it wrong; the famous green witch wasn’t necessarily bad, just misunderstood.
The show opened on Broadway in 2003. This is the second national touring production – it’s called The Munchkinland Tour – and it’s the third time the show has appeared on the expansive Gammage stage. Considering the high level of energy continually required to make it work you might forgive the production if you noticed the occasional sign of a cutback, or perhaps some trimming in the book here and there, but no, not only is that vigor totally intact, this current production on our local stage actually works better than the last visit, and a lot of that has to do with its two leads.
A theatre colleague once said that the trick to playing Glinda is getting that opening line right. As long as audiences laugh the moment Glinda floats in on her bubble and declares, “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?” followed by “No need to respond – that was rhetorical,” then it’s working. The ASU audience didn’t laugh, it roared. Carrie St. Louis wins you over the moment she floats down. The performer injects Glinda with such a fresh sense of playful energy, not to mention a new burst of great comic timing, that after awhile if you’re among those who’ve seen the show before, you tend to forget that the role wasn’t always played that way. Carrie has made it her own. Perhaps for some, there are times when that playful energy might appear in danger of becoming a little too broad, but when you think that in a huge auditorium as vast as Gammage where you have to play to the back row, that over-the-top delivery is just right. Plus, she’s very funny.
Same with Alyssa Fox as Elphaba. Being perpetually green has its challenges when trying to get audiences on your side – facial expressions are not always as easy to determine, plus there was always the original concern that the character’s novelty factor might actually block the ability to fully connect – but that’s nowhere near the case here. Employing everything from fluid body movement often used to good comic effect to an appropriate maniacal laugh when needed, not to mention a wonderful singing voice – she brings the house down with both the The Wizard and I and Defying Gravity – Alyssa does with Elphaba what Carrie does with Glinda; she makes it her own. Considering the amount of famous names and previously known talent who have played these two characters over the years since 2003, that’s impressive.
There’s also solid support from the rest of the colorful and high-energy cast, but something special happened with the opening week lineup, and of all times it happened on Press Night. On this current tour, Elphaba’s wheelchair bound sister, Nessarose is usually played by Broadway talent Liana Hunt, but for whatever reason, on the night that much of the media and many local reviewers were present, Liana was absent and the understudy was brought in.
Local Apache Junction talent, Beka Burnham graduated from college just last year and has been with the ensemble of the Munchkinland Tour ever since. But Beka is also the understudy for both Glinda and Nessarose. On Press Night the audience was treated to a local Maricopa County talent appearing in a major Broadway role. With a sympathetic delivery and an outstanding singing voice, Beka played the role with the accomplished expertise of an actor who owns it every night. It was here on the ASU Gammage stage that Beka first saw a production of Wicked when she was a season ticket holder. Now she’s in the show. I can only imagine the thrill for Beka being on the stage where it all started and for those in the audience aware of the significance of what had happened. After all, there’s no place like home.
Plus, there’s one more thing, and it’s great news. It will alter the enjoyment of not only Wicked but all future ASU Gammage touring productions – the theatre’s sound system. If anyone had a complaint regarding the auditorium it was always the lack of clarity. Depending where you were seated, lyrics weren’t always heard and dialog was occasionally lost. The new and well publicized ASU system is now in place and it’s good. There’s a rich quality to the sound that now enables everyone in the house, no matter where you’re seated, to enjoy a superior clarity of audio previously absent. It really does make all the difference.
To read a special Q&A with local talent Beka Burnham, CLICK HERE
For more regarding time, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammge website.