'Wicked' departs Fresno after making a big green impact

The Fresno BeeApril 12, 2014 

It starts with the hands.

Laurel Harris holds hers out, and makeup supervisor Joyce McGilberry starts slathering them in a shade of Landscape Green. This is how, before every performance of the national tour of "Wicked" at the Saroyan Theatre, the transformation of Elphaba begins.

On Tuesday, I got the chance to watch the "greening" in Harris' dressing room. It takes about 20 minutes: first the hands, then the neck, shoulders, face, hairline and ears.

The ears are the toughest. I retain a lingering mental image of McGilberry, who works with the brisk efficiency of a Formula One pit crew member, thoroughly swabbing Harris' ears with enough green to cover every possible crevice. It's like watching a toddler getting her ears washed by a stern British nanny, only in reverse.

Hanging out for a select few minutes backstage and taking in the sprawling infrastructure of the show — with all the costumes, props, technicians and even an entire office staff, it's like a small city moved in back there — I found myself reflecting how much this production has impacted the local theater scene. "Wicked" plays its two remaining Fresno performances today (1 and 6:30 p.m.) at the Saroyan, finishing up a 15-performance run.

This isn't the first run of "Wicked" for Fresno. The tour first came to Fresno in 2011. In that cast was Harris, at the time an ensemble member and Elphaba understudy.

She returned to Fresno for her debut as the principal Elphaba, making her opening night debut on April 2 along with Kara Lindsay, who joined the tour as Glinda. Also joining the tour: Gene Weygandt, a veteran of the Broadway production, as the Wizard.

"Kara and I and Gene were all so grateful for the audience that night," says Harris, whose dressing-room mirror is graced by a vintage photo from "The Wizard of Oz" of Margaret Hamilton, the original Wicked Witch of the West. "It's almost like they knew it was our debut. They applauded for Kara when she came in, they clapped for me, they clapped for Gene when he came out — it was a very supportive audience, very vocal."

Making the moment even more special: some special guests.

"It was really special having my parents and fiancée there, because they've been a part of this whole journey," she says. (They also saw the show the first week on Thursday and Sunday nights.)

By now Harris is being dusted with set powder, a chalky substance that keeps the green from being easily sweated off or transferring to costumes or other cast members. At intermission, she'll receive another coat of green, this one touched up with darker accents to reflect the maturity of her character.

One of the great things about performing in the show on tour, she says, is reaching audiences that can't easily get to New York.

"It's lovely to get to see different cities, especially on the West Coast that aren't anywhere close to Broadway — that we can come to them," she says.

That's especially true for Fresno. In terms of cast and production values, "Wicked" is far closer to a New York production — I would say virtually indistinguishable — than the vast majority of tours that come through the Saroyan. (Of course, the tickets for "Wicked" are far more expensive than most other offerings from the Broadway in Fresno series. Top "Wicked" tickets were selling for $150 on Ticketmaster.)

Larger cities in California regularly attract first-tier touring companies that give audiences more of a dependable taste of Broadway quality. It's rarer for Fresno to attract those kinds of titles, though it's happened in the past. (Think "The Producers" and "Les Miserables.")

It's hard to even compare the production values of "Wicked" to "Hello, Dolly!," the tour that came through the Saroyan immediately before it. It's almost like comparing a professional show to say, a solid community theater production.

The most important thing about "Wicked" is how it raises expectations for shows in the future. I like it that audiences get that kind of exposure.

There are some caveats here. "Wicked" seems to nearly be in a class in itself, sort of a once-every-decade phenomenon, in terms of a show in Fresno that can draw enough people at Broadway-style prices to sustain lengthy runs. I just don't think you'd get as much support for last year's Tony Award best-musical winner, "Kinky Boots."

At the same time, the touring theater scene here has certainly perked up with the announcement of week-long runs of "Jersey Boys" in October and "The Book of Mormon" in July 2015.

As the greening process winds down in Harris' dressing room, she's ready to engage in her pre-performance rituals — a quick run-through of the song "The Wizard and I," a few yoga stretches and jumping jacks, a prayer before curtain.

With dozens of cities on tour, it's easy for all of them to blend together for the "Wicked" cast members. But for Harris, the Saroyan Theatre will remain memorable.

When Elphaba makes her first entrance in the play, it's her first day of school at Shiz University. And for Harris, it was her first moment starring in her dream role.

"It was very emotional," she says of her opening-night entrance on the Saroyan stage. "I thought to myself: 'I made it. I can't believe I'm here.' "

For Harris, there will always be something special about Fresno. You can say the same for the city and "Wicked."

IF YOU GO

"Wicked," 1 and 6:30 p.m. today, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St. (800) 745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com/ wicked. $55-$150

'WICKED' LOTTERY

Two and one-half hours prior to each performance, people who present themselves at the Saroyan Theatre box office will have their names placed in a lottery drum. Thirty minutes later, names will be drawn for a limited number of orchestra seats at $25 each, cash only. Limit of two tickets per person. Lottery participants must have a valid photo ID when submitting an entry form and, if chosen, when purchasing tickets.

MORE ONLINE

For a video, photo gallery and extended blog post about the "greening" of Elphaba, go to www. fresnobeehive.com.

 

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.

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