**** (out of ****)
"Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?"
So begins Glinda's explanation near the beginning of Wicked on why evil occurs.
Last week, I journeyed all the way to Stuttgart, Germany to hear that same answer provided in the German language version of the world's biggest, new musical hit of the past five years.
Now, I don't profess to remembering much of the two years of German I learned during my high school years. But having seen the English language version of Wicked so many times that I practically know it by heart, I could still easily understand what was transpiring on the Stuttgart stage.
And what I understood was downright chilling and transforming, starting with my pondering of that line of Glinda's and then considering a host of others in Wicked - Die Hexen Von Oz ("The Witches of Oz") all while in the land that as recently as 63 years ago was ruled with an iron fist by Adolph Hitler -- the man Time magazine described in last week's cover story on "What Makes Us Good/Evil" as "the Nazi dictator (who) instigated World War II, engineered the Holocaust and still mystifies scholars studying the human capacity for savagery."
During each of my earlier viewings of the original English language version, I was always a bit amused at the musical's ingenious tweaking of the Bush Administration, whether picking on the president's propensity for garbled syntax or alluding to his finding an enemy in Saddam Hussein.
I've always thought in this regard, the tuner was way ahead of its time. In those heady days shortly after the war in Iraq began, few other pop cultural touchstones dared question the Administration or its actions without risking public wrath. Yet there was Wicked, all the way back in 2003, offering its critique ever so subtly to great effect.
But when seeing the German version in Stuttgart, I found myself associating the show's artfully drawn elements in a much more uncomfortable, yet obvious new application. My thoughts were instead turned to that darkest personification of evil, Adolph Hitler, who pitted neighbor against neighbor and instilled fear all while diabolically labeling Germany's Jewish people as the scapegoats for most, if not all, of the nation's hardships.
My paradigm shift for the way I viewed this show came during the scene in Wicked when Dr. Dillamond -- the talking goat of a professor -- is teaching his students, "Food grew scarce, people grew hungrier and angrier. And the question became 'Whom can we blame?' Can anyone tell me what is meant by the term 'Scapegoat'?"
"My God," I was thinking. "This is exactly what happened here in Germany..."
As I was sitting there in my front row seat at Stuttgart's Palladium Theater, the allegories to Nazi Germany were suddenly striking me like thundering lightning bolts between the eyes.
But that's apparently as it should be. I learned upon my return home that Gregory Maguire, who wrote the 1995 novel upon which Wicked is loosely based, had said in an interview:
I was living in London in the early 1990's during the start of the Gulf War. I was interested to see how my own blood temperature chilled at reading a headline in the usually cautious British newspaper, The Times of London: Sadaam Hussein: The New Hitler? I caught myself ready to have a fully-formed political opinion about the Gulf War and the necessity of action against Sadaam Hussein on the basis of how that headline made me feel. The use of the word Hitler -- what a word! What it evokes!With my own epiphany on Maguire's deeply-rooted meaning (when so little else of the book resembles the stage show), right there in the heart of Bavarian Germany, I experienced the rare kind of chills I get when something theatrical cuts to the quick of my soul.
When a few months later several young schoolboys kidnapped and killed a toddler, the British press paid much attention to the nature of the crime. I became interested in the nature of evil, and whether one really could be born bad. I considered briefly writing a novel about Hitler, but discarded the notion due to my general discomfort with the reality of those times. But when I realized that nobody had ever written about the second most evil character in our collective American subconscious, the Wicked Witch of the West, I thought I had experienced a small moment of inspiration.
This Wicked - Die Hexen Von Oz makes for an enormously electrifying evening of theatre, thanks in no small part to those allusions to Germany's dark past. Just as the truth for an American audience is inherently tied to our actions in Iraq, so, too, must the truth for its German audiences be what occurred during those savage years starting in 1933 when Hitler seized power as chancellor. It's as Wicked's Wizard proclaims, "The truth is not a thing of fact or reason -- the truth is just what everyone agrees on."
Fortunately, if the prolonged standing ovation by its audience -- along with three curtain calls -- is any indication, this German language version of the musical also entertains extraordinarily. It is an exceedingly faithful and excellent translation of the original.
Oh sure, there were minor nuances I caught. There was the frequent use of the word "hexen" in lieu of "wicked." There was the decision to skip minor winking nods to the film like the lines, "lemons and melons and pears" in tandem with "Oh, my!" -- I guess that humor simply could not translate. There were the slightly different character names -- Moq instead of Boq and Dr. Dillamonth rather than Dr. Dillamond, along with the latter "maaaaa"-ing rather than "baaaaa"-ing.
But the rest of the show made Joe Mantello's trademark direction, eclectic choreography by Wayne Cilento and glorious designs by Eugene Lee (sets), Susan Hilferty (costume), Kenneth Posner (lighting) and Tony Meola (sound) all seem shiny and new, feeling fresh as ever.
Most importantly, it has a remarkable cast whose sheer talent and flawless performances translate into one spine-tingling moment after another.
With a voice that makes "Defying Gravity" seem easy and an 11 o'clock cackle that would make Margaret Hamilton proud, Willemijn Verkaik is a forceful presence as Elphaba. Lucy Scherer not only imbues her Galinda with all the freewheeling giddiness one would expect, but she floats to the pinnacle of vocal heights with ease as Glinda.
In the supporting roles, Mark Seibert makes for a dashing Fiyero, Nicole Radeschnig is appropriately needy as Nessarose, Carlo Lauber offers deceptively simple charm as Der Zauberer von Oz ("The Wizard of Oz"), Angelika Wedekind is marvelously menacing as Madam Akaber (Madame Morrible), Stefan Stara is perfectly nerdy as Moq ("Boq") and Michael Günther is a great goat as Dr. Dillamonth.
But ultimately, it's the fact that by seeing Wicked - Die Hexen Von Oz in Germany, I had a fresh opportunity for "looking at things another way." To paraphrase a line from Glinda, that's what makes this show "so nice."
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
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