'Wicked' is still magic, and presto: here's how to park

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The Land of Oz fits neatly into everyone's imagination, but you can't squeeze it into the Fisher Theatre. And if you need to take it someplace, you'll need a dozen semis.

"Wicked," the behind-the-scenes tale of the witches of Oz, launched its fourth local run last week at the Detroit Opera House.

It's terrific, and University of Michigan graduate Laurel Harris is the best Elphaba I've seen. Great voice, great comedic timing. But wait, there's more.

There's always more; in fact, every time I see the show: more things I appreciate, more things I didn't notice before, more things I learn.

Thursday, for instance, I discovered that you can't push yourself around in an ornate theatrical wheelchair if you have a pulled neck muscle. Also, I found a dandy way to deal with parking.

Then I talked to Alan Lichtenstein, and now I know lots of other stuff, like why "Wicked" never plays the Fisher and how "Les Miserables" overwhelmed the back door there.

Lichtenstein is executive director of Nederlander Detroit, meaning he books the Broadway in Detroit series downtown. He's been the Musical Man (and the drama man) in the city since 1977.

He first saw "Wicked" on opening night in New York in 2003, with Idina Menzel as green-skinned, supposedly wicked Elphaba and Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda the Good Witch.

Thoroughly enchanted, he brought it here as quickly as he could.

Stage depth matters

Each run has done better than the last, Lichtenstein says. This one ends Jan. 4, and the only significant ticket inventory left is in the final week.

Ticketmaster's number is (800) 982-2787. Speak now or hold your peace until early 2018, when the show comes back, once again to the Opera House.

The monkeys fly there because "Wicked" needs a stage 35 1/2 feet deep, and the more commonly used Fisher is only 32 feet, 9 inches.

Also a consideration: "hanging points," theatrical shorthand for steel tresses and other structural outcroppings. The Nederlander organization had to permanently add some to the Opera House to support things like the dragon in "Wicked" and the chandelier in "Phantom of the Opera."

"Phantom" travels in 18 or 20 trucks. "Les Mis" is easier to pack, but remain substantial; the first time it came to the Fisher, Lichtenstein says, "we had to knock out the loading door to get the barricades in."

"Wicked" is less problematic, as long as the actress who plays Elphaba's sister, Nessarose, doesn't strain her neck in the opening number.

Understudy Lauren Haughton, formerly of Royal Oak and Traverse City, slid into the role and the wheelchair midway through the first act Thursday and the show quite literally didn't miss a beat.

Theater magic warms show

Just as smooth was the transition from dinner to the show.

Angelina Italian Bistro, across from the theater at 1565 Broadway, has valet parking for $20 and fettucine with clams and bacon for $21. Even if the tables are booked — call (313) 962-1355 — the bar seats about 40, though be advised that it fills up on show nights by 6 p.m.

Be advised as well, in case the weather is dicey and you have tickets, that Lichtenstein is a big believer in the show going on.

Only two programs have been canceled under his 37-year watch: pianist Peter Nero at the Music Hall when his plane couldn't land in a blizzard, and "Tommy" at the Masonic Temple.

"Tommy" takes 48 hours to load in, he says, and the temperature outside was about 20 below. By the time the last bolt was tightened, the radiators along the back wall had frozen and the reading in the auditorium was 45, untenable for musicians or patrons and 20 degrees south of the minimum in the actors' contract.

With the next night in peril and every working heater in the city already sold, Lichtenstein bought all the damaged ones he could find, had them repaired and cranked them high.

Then he bought one of those round-faced thermometers, broke it and moved the needle to 68 — about 13 degrees higher than the actual temperature. The actors were satisfied, the ticket buyers were just glad they weren't outside, and the curtain went up.

The moral of the story: Sometimes what you don't know won't numb your fingers. And, not all the magic in the theater is in "Wicked."