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If/Then more like So/What? (review) March 22, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in Uncategorized.
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At my favorite theatre in New York (the Richard Rodgers), and seen in preview on 3/21 (the show opens 3/30), Brian Yorkey and Tim Kitt’s new musical (next to normal), “If/Then” is providing Idina Menzel with a shriek-worthy score and not much to support it.

The show is in trouble from its very first sentence — a self-absorbed New York woman nearing-40 has divorced her husband with whom she has moved to Arizona for the past decade and returned to NYC to start anew. Right there, you already have a problem — the audience is asked to care about a woman who has divorced her husband because she felt bored and wanted “more out of life”. Who cares?

What follows is the show’s high concept (playing out on a gorgeous 10 million dollar multi-level set by Mark Wendland, beautifully lit by Kenneth Posner) — Elizabeth imagines two scenarios — one as Liz, and one as Beth, if she had made different choices (not in the past, mind you, where the audience already knows she’s bad at making good decisions) but in a make-believe present day. In one, she goes with a friend to a coffee shop and her life takes a fateful turn toward romance — in the other, she goes along with another friend to a different event and it sets in spin a great career in NYC.

Spoilers Follow: what happens next is so inconsequential it reflects the Raiders of the Lost Ark Syndrome (Thank you Big Bang Theory!) — it doesn’t matter what storyline you convolutedly follow, the ending is the same! With or without Nazi chase scenes, the ark is still opened and destroys everyone. With or without the “two choices” the show reveals the SAME eventual ending….

So, to get there, you have to suspend belief that anything here is real in any way other than in Elizabeth’s mind as she contemplates two different options — and you have to somehow care about this self-absorbed egotistical woman and her self-absorbed friends. There isn’t a single character on stage that you really care about, and probably wouldn’t have any of these people as your friends in real life. They’re the kind of people I spent 14 years of my life in NYC going out of my way to avoid, not spend 2:40 onstage watching.

Yorkey’s story doesn’t work on any level. His score with Kitt fares better, and there are a few strong tunes, well delivered by the very good cast.

Idina Menzel sings her heart out in every number — and I do mean sings her heart out in every number. Thankfully, she gets a few slower, quieter moments, but for the most part, she “sings her heart out” in “every number”. Clearly, the score is written and shaped directly for her, and every song is greeted by audience shrieks of enjoyment instead of standard applause — a trend that was created in Wicked, and which carries over here with her now older audience groupies.

Anthony Rapp sings and acts well, and has his own audiences shriekers in attendance. LaChanze turns in a fine performance, lacking any nuance, but certainly worthy of her musical skills. Faring best are Jerry Dixon as her boss, helping with her career while conflicted as to his feelings (the resolution of his storyline is the least realistic of any of them in the compact ending), and James Snyder (yes, that tv-star James Snyder) who sings beautifully and is given the woefully underwritten part of Idina’s love interest Josh — its as if every scene that he and Idina are in together was written in such a way that his talent never oversteps the bounds of Idina’s stardom — as a result he looks like he’s hitting his marks and moving along which creates a lack of charisma between the two of them.

There are some beautiful moments in the show, but audience members expecting a thoughtful, meaningful musical follow up to their previous work “next to normal” are going to be sorely disappointed.

There were sniffles toward the end of the show — and I have NO IDEA what they were crying about — there wan’t a single thing in this show that hit me as emotional, or even emotion-filled. But clearly I must not be the target demographic for this show.

The sole thing that this show has going for it is that it is original — in a season where every other musical is based on a movie or pre-existing source material, its nice to see people thinking about and creating something original. The payoff here, though, is not worthy.

Recommended only for musical theatre die-hards, and Idina Menzel fans. Not recommended for casual theater-goers.

Rocky on Broadway is a technical knockout (review) March 20, 2014

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You will go home whistling the sets after Rocky the musical. What you won’t go home whistling is any of the tunes. That’s not to say you won’t like the show. In fact, I loved it.

Rocky (a beefed-up excellent Andy Karl) and Adrian (superb Margo Seibert) play out their South Philadelphia love story with the requisite emotion and they both have charisma to spare. Adrian is given the evening’s only memorable songs (the ballad “Raining” and the angry-song ‘I’m Done”), though she and Rocky together have a half-song “Happiness” which barely begins and by the time it reaches its lyrical core is already over. Its underscored numerous times with “Eye of the Tiger” and the “Rocky theme” from the first two movies. Otherwise, Ahrens and Flaherty have written what is their weakest score, and its a shame.

What makes this show a real knockout is Christopher Barreca’s scenic design — I’ll go on the record here to say that it is the best set I have ever seen in a broadway musical — and its matched scene for scene by Christopher Akerlind’s excellent lighting design.

Set pieces slide, glide, lift, rotate, stack, flip. Video is integrated on large moving panels both on stage and above the audience. And you’ve probably heard about the last 20 minutes, where the premium seating patrons are moved on stage and the boxing ring slides out into the audience — no matter what your thoughts might be on the musical overall, the last 20 minutes of this show are a tour-de-force of theater — and the audience was on its feet cheering the fight long before they were urged to stand up by the cast…Video screens with rink lighting lower from the ceiling, and the atmosphere is one of a real fight. Its exciting and electric theater.

The Winter Garden Theatre has a new longtime client — and dare I say this is the show that will be the male equivalent of “Wicked” — I fully envision cool dad’s bringing their sons to the show for an evening of bonding for years to come (okay, mom will get stuck buying the tickets, and I guarantee she won’t be bored, while maybe not understanding why dad and son are so much more enthused than she is about the entire affair).

Recommended.

“Aladdin” brings Disney magic back to Broadway (review) March 19, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Uncategorized.
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I have previously reviewed Aladdin when seen in its pre-Broadway tryout in Toronto. I now follow with an updated review of the Broadway production as seen today in NYC (the official opening night is tomorrow night). And what has occurred between the show’s pre-Broadway tryouts and now is magic in itself.

I liked the show in Toronto. I loved it in New York. The musical has been pumped-up in color, tempo, and stage spectacle — and my single complaint about the Toronto production was the lack of typical Disney “magic” — but its back. The numerous subtle (and some not-so-subtle) changes all work in the show’s favor — and its quickly rising to the top of the list of musicals to beat this year in many categories.

The movie’s 6 songs are augmented by 14 new numbers (though some are reprises). Some of them were written for the movie and cut, others are original (with additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin). The other biggest problem (what to do with Aladdin’s three “boyband” buddies) here has been resolved as well. They are now integrated into the production. Overall the musical numbers work well, and the book’s broad jokes all land well.

The magic, of course, is nowhere more evident than that starlit magic carpet ride during “A Whole new World” — and it’s become even more fascinating since the design team has gone on record to state the the illusion is NOT done with wires. I have zero idea how they did it, and I’m pretty tech savvy with these things. The remainder of the show’s illusions are stage-tricks that work well throughout. But oh, that carpet…which now appears in the curtain call as well, in full light, with no visible means of floatation — I love it.

But close on its heals are the two major production numbers in the show: “A Friend like me” is a bone-fide show stopper — it got a standing ovation mid-show…and “Prince Ali” pumps up the costumes and glamour — and by itself should earn Aladdin this year’s Best Costume award at Tony time.

Also sure to win a Tony is featured actor James Monroe Iglehart as Genie. Its an all-around star turn from this man who has to follow in Robin Williams movie shadow. His is a crowd pleasing, but also very talented, performance from beginning to end. The rest of the cast remains intact from its pre-Broadway tryouts in Seattle and Toronto.

Overall, Aladdin is a fun, funny, and entertaining evening of Disney Theatricals magic — and it has found a long long tenure at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street. What fun it has been to follow its development along the way. Recommended.

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The mess that is “Oliver!” at Encore (Review) February 14, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals, Uncategorized.
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Against my better judgement (the larger the cast, the more I stay away from Encore productions), I went to see Oliver! last night, mostly to see my friends in the show.

Here’s what I can say. The leads are all quite good. The secondary leads border on bad (with notable exceptions: and all of them are used either in the Undertaker scene, or the Street Seller sequence). And the production as a whole is terrible. I left the show thinking there is no way I can write a review on this, its that bad. But then I though, I really should write a review on this, to warn people expecting a good production of a show that many people love.

There are some sparks of life: Mahalia Greenway is a superb Nancy, trapped in terrible blocking not of her choosing…Tobin Hissong is a fantastic Fagin…and the set looks great and works functionally for the production (which used a turntable in the original Broadway production and fully realized sets in later stagings).  The two-piece piano/drum combo sounds like a two-piece combo. They are not credited in the program.

Despite a great set, the lighting is dismal and too dark for this musical. Colors are tinged with yellow and orange throughout, making everything look, well, not London-dirty but Dexter-out-of-gels dingy.

The kids in the show (I know, I know, how can a reviewer knock kids?) lack charisma, and there are too many girls in the workhouse boys sequence which makes the entire “Food Glorious Food” sequence sound too thin and too high. Instead of spunky kids of various ages caught between childhood and a life of servitude, you get soprano and high tenor overtones that wash out any life these kids might have in them. They do better later in Fagin’s gang, but by that point the damage has been done.  I wont mention my thoughts on Oliver and Dodger.

Things get better as the mediocre to poor ensemble dissipates and the adult actors take over — and the second act is better than the first, not only because its written better, but because the many ensemble numbers have been finished and gone…This is a production in which the ensemble definitely does not mesh with the more polished professionals, and it is very noticeable.

But my biggest gripe goes to the direction/choreography. What the heck??? There are gaps and holes you can drive a mack-truck through. Songs end and people just stand there. Lines are finished, and people stand on stage frozen for 8 – 10 beats while the music cues catch up. Nobody talks over music cues, they wait until the music sounds its final notes. People look at the door before anyone knocks. Oliver not only has time to escape from the Undertaker, he has time to drink a Redbull tallboy before he goes.  Alisa Mutchler-Bauer has impressive credits in her program bio. That doesn’t match what is on stage at the Encore, much of which feels like its blocked by others — the actors themselves maybe? Take the initial meeting between Oliver and Dodger — could it have been drawn out any longer? Oliver sits toward the front of the stage and Dodger appears at the top of the stairs stage right, aware that he has seen his “mark” down below…he stands there for a moment or two while Oliver finishes putzing with his bag, and then “hides” at far stage left under the stairs…Dodger then primps and preens a bit, fixing his hat, making himself look like a sophisticate, and then begins his long slow walk down the stairs…stopping at the bottom to preen some more…then eventually moving toward center to make his first line —OY!!!!! That should have started two minute earlier. This kind of slop is clearly poor direction. Kids will do whatever you tell them to do.  This pattern repeats over and over throughout the show. Scenes that should be funny don’t garner a single laugh (“I shall scream”). Choreography in “Consider Yourself” is repetitive, basic-church-basement-theatre pattern-filled, and it just looks bad on stage. This is not the actors fault — they are given bad blocking and choreography to work with.

So — I wasn’t going to review this production. You can see why. But you can also vote with your wallets on things like this. Just because it is there doesn’t mean people will come. Clearly word of mouth is out, because my performance was only half full last night, for a show that should be raking in the bucks.

Not recommended.

Oliver! continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company (whose next show is not a musical) through March 2nd.

A quick note on reviews – or, why I didn’t review your show July 13, 2013

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Just a reminder that I do not review every musical that opens in SE Michigan, but you can be sure that I will review every professional musical tour that comes through and all Broadway musicals in NYC each year.

I do not review community theater shows, or amateur theater production unless I specifically want to see the show. Then I might or might not write a review. In general, these will only end up with a review if the production was stellar. There is no reason to give a bad review to an amateur production, but there is plenty of reason to praise things that are above the norm.

I will never review shows done in inappropriate venues (I don’t care how good your cast might be in that blackbox production of Phantom of the Opera. I will not be seeing it.) I rarely attend these productions, and if I do, it is only to see a friend, or because a close friend is somehow involved in the production.

I never accept free tickets to review shows, and I pay for every production that I want to see. Frankly, there’s a lot I don’t want to see.

 

 

 

Cedar Point Live Shows 2013 (Review) June 18, 2013

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Another summer of live shows is in full swing at Cedar Point, and it continues to offer the best overall live-park show entertainment outside of Walt Disney World’s theme parks. This year’s offerings are no exception.

Summer Daze at the Palace Theater in Frontiertown offers a front-of-the-park quality show at the back-of-the-park. This is the second year in a row for this super entertaining production that mixes in “summer vacation song” type numbers from Katy Perry to Broadway (kudos to whomever picked great songs from Pump Boys and Dinettes and Ragtime). This year’s cast is very talented and works well together. Musicianship, talent, and chemistry are at work here. The guys in particular dance much better than last year. This is a great place to grab lunch while watching the show, and the food options are much improved.

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At the front of the park, the new “On Broadway” mixes-up a lot of Broadway standards in an awards-show format. The cast is strong, and they are given good material to work with here. Its the strongest front-of-park show at the Jack Aldrich Theater in many years. The production makes very few missteps and stars a fresh young cast of nationwide musical theater students in a production that includes songs from old favorites (Hairspray, Les Miz, and Chicago) while liberally sprinkling in lesser known tunes from My Favorite Year, and lesser songs from Jukebox musicals including Million Dollar Quartet and Jersey Boys (though that segment is a bit generic). The “You Can’t Stop the Beat” Hairspray finale is particularly well done. A costume parade is terrific here with instantly recognizable costumes from Broadway musicals (though the My Fair Lady costume represents the movie, not the stage version). Be sure to stop off and end your day with this production as it runs in the late afternoon early evening only.

There’s a fantastic cast in the Frontier Trail’s Red Garter Saloon at “Absolute Country” — its a shame you can’t make out a single word of what they are singing in the highly over-amplified poorly sound-designed ear splitting production. The kids are terrific — and they work very hard to shout their songs out over the high-volume semi-tracked (with live accompaniment) production. For country lovers, you will probably recognize most of these honky-tonk style pop country standards, but if you didn’t already know them, you wouldn’t understand a word of what you are hearing in this mic-mush production. This is also a return show, and it suffered the same mic-problems last season. While I would like to blame it on the accoustics in the theater I can’t — in the old days, performers did their show here WITHOUT any mics, and they were able to be heard by all. The problem here is the sound design.

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All Wheels Extreme at the Aquatic Stadium offers its finest show to date. Gone are the old pander-to-the-guys-with-cheerleading-bimbos production values, and instead you now get a 25 minutes of purely stunt-driven high energy production with bikes, scooters, gymnastics, roller skates and a few surprises thrown in. All performed to high-energy summer hip hop and rock tunes, its a fun (and remarkably athletic) production that you shouldn’t miss. But kids, don’t try these stunts at home. Regular watchers of America’s Got Talent will recognize some of the folks in this group from last summer’s tv show. Note that this production is outdoors and is weather dependent. Also, do not sit along the “bird bombardment zone” (the second and third row around the seating area) where even after all these years CP hasn’t figured out how to eliminate the seagull droppings as they perch on the roof around the rim of the theater.

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Also returning for another season at the Goodtime Theater is “Happiness Is…Snoopy” ice-skating show. This is the Point’s biggest indoor production with multiple set, costume, and lighting effects. Family friendly to a fault, the show is much improved over last summer’s offering, and the skating stronger overall. Half of the cast returns from last season, while a few newcomers help make things feel fresh and different. Don’t bypass this production, as much as they go out of their way to make it seem like its another Peanuts-pandering kids show…it is not. You’ll be impressed by the skating, and dazzled by the excellent stage design for this full-out ice show.

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Luminosity (version 2.0 this year) returns to the Iron Dragon midway, and its a better show than last year. The song selection is better, and the singers stronger. The lighting is updated and the effects look great, and its a great way to end your day at the Point (the show starts at 9:30 and runs about 40 minutes, followed by dancing on the midway to a live DJ that rises from the stage). More people hung out to dance after the show this year, and the better placement (and expansion) of the bar-area behind the light booth certainly helps with the late night energy. You’ll recognize some of the folks you saw in other shows during the day as well. This is a much-needed improvement over the old laser lighting show, and it really sends you out of the park (or back to the resorts) in a great mood. Note that this production is dependent on the weather.

There are several other smaller productions geared toward the kiddees (all themed to Snoopy and the Peanuts gang) throughout the day. The peanuts characters make frequent appearances in Camp Snoopy, and they are more than amenable to taking photos with adults as well. Overall, this is a very strong season of live entertainment at Cedar Point — be sure to take some time out of your coaster-riding day to sit down and enjoy some of the great performers.

Kinky Boots on Broadway is abso-friggin-fantabulous (review) March 23, 2013

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Take one part Hairspray and one part The Full Monty. Mix together and add in generous helpings of Priscilla, La Cage, and sprinkle it all with tasty performances and shiny design work. Finally, douse it all in a superior score by Cyndi Lauper and strong script by Harvey Fierstein. Season to taste with Jerry Mitchell’s fabulous direction and choreography.  What you get is one abso-friggin-fantabulous concoction at the Hirschfield theatre.

An energetic and excellent cast leads you through a strong book musical concerning the rescue of a men’s shoe factory after four generations by the son Charlie Price (Stark Sands in another standout roll) by converting its product to kinky boots made especially for drag queens. Enter Tony-worthy Billy Porter as Lola and the stage is set.

The production numbers here soar, especially the Act One closer  “Everybody Say Yeah” choreographed using moving conveyor belts. But where the show also shines is in the more intimate moments — there is a lot of heart beneath the glitz, and it all feels natural.

Ultimately the show finds its voice in the theme of “accept who you are” but it comes from the most unexpected of places — and the audience tears come quickly, followed by a big Hairspray-like final number that had the audience cheering. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen an audience have this kind of ecstatic reaction throughout a show.

In a year when Matilda will most likely draw the most Tony wins due to its sheer scope and family-friendliness, I’ll be rooting for Kinky Boots. With the best score I’ve heard in a Broadway show in years, Cyndi Lauper should go ahead and write her acceptance speech right now.

Matilda the musical (review) NYC — something naughty this way comes March 23, 2013

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre, Uncategorized.
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Matilda the musical, now playing at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, is a naughty big brash musical comedy freshly imported from London where it won a record number of Olivier awards a few months back. Half of that cast has come along for the ride.

It probably helps to have read Roald Dahl’s book prior to seeing the show: some audience might otherwise walk away from this show thinking “what the heck was that?” — it plays differently to adults and kids: adults can see the destructiveness of the dysfunctional parents and teachers on an otherwise genius young girl (a superb Bailey Ryon at my performance), while kids take the characters for what they are and revel in the revenge story. Its the rare musical these days you can take your 8-year old to that they will sit captivated by, while also entertaining you.

Bertie-send-him-his-Tony-now-Carvel plays a lunatic headmistress Miss Trunchbull in kinda the weirdest drag you will ever see on any stage anywhere. Lesli Margherita and Gabriel Ebert are terrific as Matilda’s white-trash parents, the Wormwoods. Ryan Steele turns in a fantastic dance role as ballroom dancer Rudolpho and Lauren Ward is practically perfect as Miss Honey.

Tim Minchin’s lyrics are ridiculously funny, his music bland and repetitive without a single standout. When it finally gets rolling with the luscious “My House” in the show’s penultimate scene, it peters out before you know it.

Peter Darling’s choreography is outstanding throughout, with “School Song” the highlight. Matthew Warchus directs as if the musical is Benny Hill on acid…sometimes its brilliant, sometimes it falls into British pantomime…but it is never ever dull. Your tolerance of the show will completely depend on your enjoyment of broad-stroke pratfalls and slapstick. Really big, over-the-top slapstick.

The audience ate it up. The kids (many many many) in the house loved it. What the heck, pack up the car right now and head to the Shubert for this season’s biggest hit.

Spooky (Hilarious) Mormon Hell Dream…The Book of Mormon (Detroit) tour review March 13, 2013

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I won’t go much into the show itself, since there is little one can add to “review” the musical THE BOOK OF MORMON, continuing its tour now in Detroit, except to say that the production is superb, the cast excellent, and the humor as raunchy as ever. Sending our cast of naive white-boy Mormon missionaries off into warlord-torn Uganda, little needs to be said about the plot and developments that hasn’t already either been said, or shown (see YouTube). If you don’t know much about the show and are seeing it soon, the better for you — the jokes play far better if you don’t already know whats coming around the bend, so I won’t say more.

I’ve reviewed the show before when seen on Broadway: https://a2view.com/2011/07/31/the-book-of-mormon-catch-me-if-you-can-sister-act-broadway-reviews/

The show arrives at the Fisher Theater to two weeks of sold-out performances — and for good reason. Appealing to a wide-audience, the Best Musical Tony-winner ramps up the humor but keeps a lot of heart intact. South Park fans will find a lot to love in this very unconventional musical, while musical theater fans will find a lot to love in the excellent execution of it all. 

British actor Mark Evans plays a spirited and energetic Elder Price (I am assuming this was some type of trade for Gavin Creel heading off to London to do the part there), but the special kudos for this tour production have to go to the sublime roly-poly Christopher John O’Neill as his sidekick Elder Arnold Cunningham. His facial expressions alone are enough to slay them in the aisles, but he’s a great singer and dancer to boot. A bit more reserved than Josh Gad in the role, he brings amazing charisma and a star-making turn to his role.

The tour is identical to the Broadway show — down to the set and costumes, and if you didn’t get a chance to see it in NYC, see it on tour (it might be easier to get tickets on Broadway these days, the tour seems to sell every single seat within hours of tickets going on sale — check for house seat releases or cancellations a few days before each performance).

If you are among the ticket-holders for The Book of Mormon, count yourself lucky — its an excellent tour that will have you laughing (and talking about the show) all the way home. As usual, just a reminder that this is not a show that is family friendly. In fact, its not even pre-teen friendly. Apparently Broadway-in-Detroit did a pretty good job making sure that audiences know its not for kids — its a great night out for open-minded adults. My mom would still walk out. 

ANYTHING GOES and WICKED in San Francisco (Tour update) February 5, 2013

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While in San Francisco this past week, I had the opportunity to catch up with two favorite Broadway shows on tour — the first national tours of ANYTHING GOES and WICKED. Good news for the former, not so much for the latter.

Anything Goes (which I originally saw in NYC and then on tour in East Lansing) continues to get tighter as it goes. The entire cast is stronger than the original Broadway cast, and Rachel York is simply superb as Reno Sweeney. Erich Bergen is as smooth as a glass of scotch playing Billy Crocker (catch his cabaret act in whatever town the show is currently playing!). Fred Applegate continues to amaze as Moonface Martin. Alex Finke is lovable as Hope, and Chuck Wagner steady as the Captain. Edward Staudenmayer’s performance as Sir Evelyn has grown and grown, and he is a wonder, especially once the show plunges headlong into “The Gypsy in Me” sequence in Act Two. Overall, the Anything Goes tour is one of the strongest casts you are going to see in this very strong production. Do not hesitate to get tickets.

WICKED, on the other hand, is showing its age. While most of the performances in the current first national tour are first rate, some of the cast members have far outlived their roles. Dee Roscioli continues to play a fine Elphaba, but her counterpart Patti Murin as Glinda is starting to look tired. Cliffton Hall sings a fine Fiyero, but is getting too old to play the part. He’s been doing this for a long time, and where he used to look boyish, he now looks like a man…a 40-year old man (he’s 39). Justin Brill (35) is particularly too old to be playing Boq at this point. 

The cyclorama is water damaged and wrinkled, and it is particularly startling to see this in a Broadway set. When hit with amber or orange light, the wrinkles show from center stage left all the way to upper stage left. You can tell someone has taken the time to try to straighten things out — because the handprints show in large streaks along the edges of the clockface on the cyc. Its unforgivable. Fortunately, the First National tour is still using the fully realized sets, including the bridge, which the other tour companies have now downsized to flats. 

Its a mixed bag overall — but Wicked is in need of some fresh cast members, and some cleaning up and tightening as it continues its journey on its eternal tour.