“Wicked,” the Musical: Ben Vereen presents a very different Wizard

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WickedMost of us know the story of The Wizard of Oz from the 1939 movie that starred Judy Garland. This classic movie is the tale of Dorothy‚ a little girl from Kansas who ends up in a make-believe place when her house is swept away by a tornado. Did you ever wonder why that twister happened to pick Dorothy’s house and drop it on the Wicked Witch of the East? When you saw Glinda the Good Witch float gently into town in a bubble and the Wicked Witch of the East fly in on her broomstick, did you wonder how the one came to be “good” and the other to be “wicked”? The answers to these and other questions posed by The Wizard of Oz are presented in the musical Wicked.

Playing at the Gershwin Theatre at 222 W. 51st Street in New York City, this enchanting production is playing to sold-out houses. It features marvelous music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, a delightful book by Winnie Holzman, spirited orchestrations by William David Brohn and amazing direction by Joe Mantello.

WickedWicked is the story of how the Wicked Witch of the East, also known as Elphaba (played by Shoshana Bean), was born green and went to school with Glinda (played by Megan Hilty). The audience has a lot of laughs as Elphaba and Glinda show their dislike for each other. The two eventually become best friends, but their friendship is soon threatened when they both fall in love with the same boy, Fiyero (played by David Ayers). At school it is revealed that Elphaba has great powers. The head of the school, Madame Morrible (played by Rue McClanahan), arranges for Elphaba to meet the great Wizard of Oz. Unknown to Elphaba, the Wizard (played by Ben Vereen) and Morrible want her to help them read an ancient book of spells so that they can take away the ability to speak from all the animals in Oz. But Elphaba loves the fact that the animals speak, especially since one of her teachers is a goat. She refuses to help and flees, becoming a wanted person. The story also spotlights a connection between the Wizard and Elphaba, which is explained at the end of the production.

When Wicked first opened, the Wizard (played then by Joel Grey) was portrayed as a bad person. George Hearn also played this role. Since May 31, Broadway veteran Ben Vereen has taken over the role, and he sees the character in a different light. Although Grey’s Wizard was good, Vereen’s portrayal of the character has much more dimension. “I felt there is a side of this guy that no one is telling and that is that he is a victim of circumstance. He’s just a showman. He was with a carnival and going up in a balloon, then he’s in Oz and thrown behind a mask. He’s never seen,” says Vereen.

Asked how he felt about playing a role traditionally cast with white actors, Vereen says, “I thought it was very insightful and courageous for the producers to make that decision. With African-American actors, it doesn’t matter the role. Give us the opportunity.” Vereen plays the character with such energy and tenderness that the audience is able to experience not only the Wizard’s charming and scary personalities, but also his pain.

Vereen will be with the show through Jan. 1, 2006. Shows are Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, call 212-307-4100 or 800-755-4000, or order online at www.WickedtheMusical.com