A caravan of 55-foot semi trucks rolled off Interstate 90 into Spokane early this past Tuesday morning. Drivers steered their loads through downtown, past the emerging skeleton of the new Convention Center hotel to the loading docks at the INB Performing Arts Center. Two additional semis unloaded into the venue days before, and inside, a mostly local crew bustles around the stage to assemble the massive, elaborate set pieces for Wicked.
By the time those 11 semis pulled in, two other trucks had already unloaded, and the gears, cogs and pulleys that frame the stage are already mostly in place. At its peak, a giant, steampunk-esque, mechanical dragon hovers ominously over the workers shouting and carefully rolling in the rest of the set below.
It takes the better part of three days to set up the touring Broadway show, but a mere five hours to disassemble and load back into the trucks, says Wicked company manager Ryan Lympus.
"It's a lot of stuff, but it's what it takes to make sure the show appears as close to Broadway as possible," Lympus says over the phone last week from Boise, the show's stop before heading to Spokane. "We're definitely on the bigger side of the touring world, and I think that just shows in the production itself."
Wicked travels with about 30 company stage crew, but during each tour stop, Lympus says around 100 local stagehands are hired to help install the set and its props. Then between 30 and 40 members of that local crew stay on to work through the show's run.
To put the scope of Wicked further into perspective, Lympus says a dozen locals are hired just to help dress actors during the production's numerous, elaborate costume changes.
"I think we have about a thousand costume pieces in the show, which are for the most part all individually made for the show," he says. Those costumes alone, along with 90 wigs (handmade with human hair), fill up one of those 55-foot semis.
Wicked, which originally premiered on Broadway in 2003 and is still running at New York's Gershwin Theatre, has received more than 50 awards and remains so wildly popular that two national tours of the show run concurrently, year-round.
This year mark's Wicked's second run in Spokane — it was staged here back in May 2011 to much fanfare, including an Inlander cover story.
"From a behind-the-scenes perspective, it always shocks me that there are people who haven't seen the show and haven't been able to experience it," Lympus says. "It's as close to Broadway without being in New York... These actors are so talented, with killer voices and amazing dance abilities, and to bring that eight times a week and give that energy to audiences, who walk away with an unforgettable experience."
The musical is adapted from the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire, which parallels the storyline of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. That film, of course, was based on the 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by famed children's author L. Frank Baum. Starting before and ending after Dorothy's visit to Oz, Wicked shows us a friendship between two very divergent characters: Elphaba, aka the Wicked Witch of the West (not to be confused by the witch crushed by Dorothy's house — that's the Wicked Witch of the East) and Glinda, known as the Good Witch of the North. Woven into their path to friendship are more serious elements taken from Maguire's book, and the musical deals with political power, race and discrimination and even animal rights.
Since its debut almost a decade ago, Wicked has established itself as one of the most popular and enduring Broadway productions in recent memory. Along with two nonstop U.S. tours, it's also been performed in the UK, Mexico, Australia, Japan and Germany.
In Wicked: The Grimmerie, a coffee-table book documenting all that went into the show's creation, co-producer Marc Platt summarizes its cultural staying-power: "Wicked is an extremely satisfying experience for a bunch of reasons. It has accessible, tuneful music. It's full of the spectacle you would expect from the fantasy world of Oz. It tells a story of characters you walk into the theater thinking you know. Yet, Wicked takes you to places you never expected, it twists and turns, and at the end of the evening, it moves you."
As the cast of Wicked prepare for night after night of performances in Spokane — for a total of 24 shows — the theater hums with excitement. Up on stage an enormous map of The Land of Oz hangs guarded by the grim metallic dragon.
Backstage, the dressing crew flits around putting the finishing touches on the actors' first costume change for Act I. Wigs are smoothed, face powder applied. Elphaba's skin is transformed from alabaster to deep olive green in a process that takes up to 30 minutes. Glinda's blonde curls are perfectly coifed and set, a tiara perched atop them. She's dressed in a 40-lb., baby-blue gown adorned in sequins and stones, Swarovski crystal wand in hand, ready to emerge on stage and dazzle the crowd. ♦
Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz • May 7-25; Tue-Sun, showtimes vary • $42.50-$152.50 • INB Performing Arts Center • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • bestofbroadwayspokane.com • 777-6253