Blockbuster Broadway Musical “Wicked” at DPAC More Than Lives Up to Its Advance Billing

The Durham Performing Arts Center will present "Wicked," starring Durham native Laurel Harris as Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West, from Jan. 7th to 25th (photo by Joan Marcus)
The Durham Performing Arts Center will present "Wicked," starring Durham native Laurel Harris as Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West, from Jan. 7th to 25th (photo by Joan Marcus)
The Durham Performing Arts Center will present "Wicked," starring Durham native Laurel Harris as Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West, from Jan. 7th to 25th (photo by Joan Marcus)
The Durham Performing Arts Center will present “Wicked,” starring Durham native Laurel Harris as Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West, from Jan. 7th to 25th (photo by Joan Marcus)

The national tour of the blockbuster Broadway musical Wicked has touched down at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) for a three-week run. If the Jan. 8th performance is any indication, it will be three weeks of sellouts for DPAC. The universally acclaimed musical tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, but from a decidedly different point of view.

At this point, it seems a little redundant to review Wicked. With its undeniable popularity and success, it doesn’t need reviews from the hinterlands to sell tickets. However, as hard as it is to believe, there are folks out there who have yet to see the show and are still scratching their heads, trying to understand what all the fuss is about. Until last night, I was one of them, so this review is for the uninitiated.

I read Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked, the book on which the musical is based, several years ago. By the time I got to the end, I was thoroughly mystified as to how anyone had managed to make a hit musical out of the book, especially a musical that’s so popular that it has, well … groupies — people who keep going back to see it, over and over and over, and who more or less get stars in their eyes at the very mention of the show’s name. However, having spent a good chunk of my life working in the theater, I knew anything was possible.

In both the book and the musical, we’re given a backstory for the Wicked Witch, Elphaba (played by Durham native Laurel Harris). Not surprisingly, being born with green skin causes problems from the beginning. Even her parents are repelled by her appearance, and she grows up isolated and stigmatized.

But Elphaba is smart and has other talents. She goes off to university, where she ends up rooming with Glinda (Carrie St. Louis), an empty-headed, vain girl with whom she has (apparently) nothing in common. The two dislike each other on sight, but later develop an unlikely and complicated friendship. A new student, Prince Fiyero (Ashley Parker Angel), becomes the object of Glinda’s affections and forms a cautious and respectful friendship with Elphaba.

In Oz, there are animals, and there are capital-A Animals. The latter are “self-aware” and able to speak like humans. One of Elphaba’s favorite professors, Dr. Dillamond (Michael DeVries), is a goat. But there is trouble brewing in Oz. The rights of the Animals — as well as their ability to speak — are being taken away, and soon a decree goes out declaring that Animals may no longer teach at university. Guards come to remove Dr. Dillamond from his class one day, and Elphaba declares that something must be done.

Stage, film, and television actor, singer, and TV game-show host John Davidson will star as the not-so-wonderful Wizard of Oz in "Wicked," (photo by Joan Marcus)
Stage, film, and television actor, singer, and TV game-show host John Davidson will star as the not-so-wonderful Wizard of Oz in “Wicked,” (photo by Joan Marcus)

Madame Morrible (Kristine Zbornik), Elphaba’s sorcery professor, comes to tell Elphaba that she has arranged a meeting for her with the Wizard of Oz (John Davidson), something Elphaba has always wanted. Taking Glinda with her, Elphaba goes to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard, who presents her with the Grimmerie, an ancient spell book. He challenges Elphaba to prove herself by making sense of the book and performing a levitation spell on the monkey Chistery (Dashi Mitchell).

Elphaba’s spell gives Chistery (and all the other monkeys) wings, but the Wizard’s reaction makes her realize that he is not as “wonderful” as she’d thought. She suddenly understands that The Wizard is the mastermind of the campaign against the Animals, his goal is to make of them “a really good enemy” for the purpose of uniting all of the other Ozians. The Wizard tries to enlist Elphaba in his schemes, but she takes the Grimmerie, and, with Glinda, flees the Wizard’s chambers.

Elphaba feels compelled to leave the Emerald City and fight the injustices against the Animals across Oz. She asks Glinda to come with her, but Glinda is not as brave as Elphaba and stays behind. The rest of the plot hinges on their choices.

The theme of the show (and the book) centers on the question of what makes someone “wicked.” Is she born that way, or do forces beyond the person’s control make her wicked? Is “wicked” in the eye of the beholder? Is someone wicked simply because she fights the establishment, the status quo?

Wicked is popular and successful for good reason. It’s the complete package — an excellent show on every level. Before you even get to the casting and performances, you have a clever, thoughtful script (by Winnie Holzman); a score that soars (by Stephen Schwartz); and stunning set, costume, and lighting design (by Eugene Lee, Susan Hilfery, and Kenneth Posner, respectively). In fact, Wicked is so beautifully designed that I would be happy simply to go back and look at the show.

That being said, the cast of this national touring production couldn’t be stronger. Laurel Harris gives us an awkward, angry, idealistic, romantic, strong, and vulnerable Elphaba. Her delivery of Elphaba’s songs — especially the show-stopping (and often oversung) “Defying Gravity” — is full of both emotional and technical nuance and demonstrates great dynamic range.

Carrie St. Louis matches Ms. Harris’ vocal abilities and then some, her beautiful soprano both light and powerful. Her characterization of the ditzy but (mostly) well-intentioned Glinda the Good is both hilarious and poignant.

John Davidson, a household name when I was growing up, made the Wizard oddly likable in spite of all his rationalizing and responsibility denying. I expected Mr. Davidson to sing well, but his dancing ability was a nice surprise.

The rest of the cast, including Emily Behny (as Nessarose, Elphaba’s sister) and Lee Slobotkin (as Boq, a Munchkin in love with Glinda), were equally strong; and the dancers in the ensemble deserve special mention. They performed Wayne Cilento’s stylized choreography so exquisitely that I found myself wanting to focus on them instead of the story whenever they were onstage. The Wicked orchestra, under the baton of P. Jason Yarcho, was perfection.

The artistic team for Wicked has created a show worthy of every accolade that it has been given. The list of talented contributors seems endless: Holzman, Schwartz, Lee, Hilfery, Posner, Cilento … plus director Joe Mantello, sound designer Tony Meola, and so many more.

No longer a Wicked “virgin,” I get it now. I get the swooning and rhapsodizing, the returning to see the show multiple times. Wicked is a great show, period. If you can’t make it to the DPAC run, do yourself a favor and find a way to get to it one of these days. It’s a worthy “bucket-list” item.

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 9th Raleigh, NC Raleigh review by Jeffrey Karasarides: and Dec. 23rd interview with Emily Behny, conducted by Jeffrey Karasarides:; Jan. 9th Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan:, Jan. 8th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan:, and Jan. 5th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: (Note: You must subscribe to read these articles); Jan. 9th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter:; Jan. 6th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Brian Howe:; Dec. 31st Burlington, NC Times-News preview by Kaitlin Gillespie for “Teens & Twenties”:; and Dec. 28th Durham, NC Durham News mini-preview: (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 8th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click

The Durham Performing Arts Center presents WICKED: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WITCHES OF OZ at 8 p.m. Jan. 9, 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 10, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 11, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 13-15, 8 p.m. Jan. 16, 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 17, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20-22, 8 p.m. Jan. 23, 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 24, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.

TICKETS: $66.70-$212.10 (including fees).


DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787),, or

Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or

NOTE: Starting two-and-a-half hours before each performance, the Durham Performing Arts Center will conduct a lottery for a limited number of orchestra seats. The winners will be drawn 30 minutes later, and will be able to buy up to two tickets for just $25 each (cash only). For details of the Wicked ticket lottery, click

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587,, or

SHOW: and










DPAC PARENTAL ADVISORY: “[Wicked is r]ecommended age for children is 8 and up. As a courtesy to our guests, children under the age of 6 will not be permitted in the theater. Please be aware that all guests, regardless of age, must have a ticket. Children must be able to sit quietly in their own seat without disturbing other guests. As a further courtesy to our guests, DPAC recommends one parent or chaperone for every one child in attendance.”


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900 children’s novel): (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Website, maintained by Eric Gjovaag) and (Wikipedia).

The 1900 Children’s Novel: (Google Books).

L. Frank Baum (novelist, 1856-1919): (Wikipedia).

The Wizard of Oz (1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film): (official website for the 1998 rerelease), (Internet Movie Database), (TCM Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995 fantasy novel): (HarperCollins Publishers web page), (official website) and (Wikipedia).

The 1995 Fantasy Novel: (Google Books).

Gregory Maguire (novelist): (official website), (HarperCollins Publishers bio), and (Wikipedia).

Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz (2003 Broadway and 2006 West End musical): (official website), (, and (Internet Broadway Database), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), (Wikipedia), and (YouTube page).

Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics): (official website), (official website), and (Wikipedia).

Winnie Holzman (book): (Internet Broadway Database) and (Wikipedia).

Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz (upcoming film): (Internet Movie Database).


Viki Atkinson danced professionally in musical theater for a number of years and later shifted her focus to choreographing for theater. Locally, she danced in the North Carolina Theatre productions of Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story. Additional performance credits include Kathy in Company, Peggy in Godspell, and the title role in Gypsy. Later, Atkinson lent her dance expertise to Spectator Magazine, serving as chief dance critic from 1987 to 1999. She also holds a degree in Dance Education from UNC-Greensboro; and she has taught extensively in a variety of settings, including Meredith College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (Petersburg, VA), and the School of Richmond Ballet. She was also on the faculty of the Raleigh School of Ballet for 10 years and directed the dance program at Martin Middle School for four years. Viki Atkinson recently returned to Raleigh after living in Richmond for six years, and is thrilled to be back in North Carolina! To read more of Viki Atkinson’s Triangle Review reviews, click here. To read more of her CVNC reviews, click here.