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One of the characters enshrined in the shadowy pantheon of the greatest cinematic villains of all time has to be Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 MGM version of "The Wizard of Oz." Many a child has been kept awake at night by the thought of that green face appearing at the window, flanked by flying monkeys.
The musical "Wicked" — based on the 1995 book, "Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz," by Gregory Maguire — asks the viewer to look deeper than skin, and imagine the forces at work in creating that villainy: the story of Elphaba, who lives with discrimination and ridicule because of her green complexion. In the process of learning more about the forces that turned Elphaba from misunderstood girl to Toto-stealer and flying-monkey wrangler, the audience gets a lesson on outsiders, popularity, discrimination, prejudice and the frustration that can turn a normally good person "wicked." It helps that it's a lesson packaged in a dazzling emerald jewel box of a production, full of moody sets, magic and outrageous costumes. And music, of course. Always the music.
The touring production of "Wicked" will be at Little Rock's Robinson Center Music Hall Sept. 25 through Oct. 6. It will be the second visit to the state by the touring company, the last in 2010. Little Rock performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Ticket prices range from $48.50 to $144.
John Hillner has been a member of the touring cast since June, playing the character Dr. Dillamond. Because this is Oz, where such things happen, Dillamond is a talking goat, the lone animal professor at Oz's Shiz University, a magical college attended by Elphaba and her more conventionally-pretty sister, Glinda. Being an outsider who faces discrimination himself, Dillamond forms a bond with Elphaba. But soon he and other talking animals have their speech stripped from them in the course of a dastardly power play that will reshape the face of Oz.
A veteran actor on Broadway, Hillner's transformation for the part of Dr. Dillamond is a mixture of makeup and a latex facial prosthesis, plus hoof-like mittens on his hands. As an actor, he said the extensive face-covering limits him somewhat. The real acting, however, comes in his getting across Dr. Dillamond's confusion as his intelligence and speech are slowly taken from him due to the machinations of the villain in the story.
"It is heartbreaking," Hillner said. "There are various points where it happens to my character, and I don't understand how it's happening, but it comes out in the dialogue. It's a very insidious kind of thing. ... People want to try to take away the differences in society. It's very much parallel to what we live today."
The thread that runs through "Wicked" — society's prejudice against those who are different and the need to overcome it — is a big part of the musical's success and broad appeal, loved by women, men, young and old. Hillner and other principal actors offer backstage tours for audience members, with all the proceeds from the $75 tour and merchandise sales going to the charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. During those tours, many audience members tell Hillner that "Wicked" has made them reconsider how those who are different are treated. His character is central to making that point.
"Just being different is to be an object of ridicule," he said. "Elphaba is green, so right off the bat, she's pointed at and laughed at and jeered by her fellow students. I'm the object of ridicule. Basically, she and I carry the burden of fighting against prejudice and the kind of discrimination that can infect society. We find a bond. ... We are connected by the fact that we are persecuted, and I share some of my discoveries of what's happening in the Oz society with her and let her know she needs to watch her back."
While the characters in the musical will be familiar to anyone who has seen the 1939 MGM film, Hillner said "The Wizard of Oz" is not "Wicked." The musical's plotline and characters, he said, are "entirely more complex."
"What ['Wicked'] does is explore the reasons and the insidious nature of what goes on behind what you see at the end of the movie. There's a lot more that goes on," he said. "What makes this woman [Elphaba] tick is the particular relationship with Glinda the Good Witch. What actually happens between them is very enlightening as far as what goes on. When you see the movie and what happens at the end of the musical, you'll understand why she does what she does. It's not that she's a bad witch."
Musicals, Hillner said, lend themselves to that kind of complexity, with multiple layers of experience and expression: dialogue, lyrics, music, choreography, costumes and sets. "The story is heightened by hearing it sung — hearing it sung by two people, hearing it sung by an entire cast," Hillner said. "We're telling a story to ourselves, and we're passing it on to the audience. It's verbal history, and it grabs us in a way that a play doesn't."