Nine years ago, Christine Dwyer fell under the spell of Idina Menzel, the actress who originated the role of the green-skinned enchantress Elphaba in “Wicked.” The “Wicked” tour opens at the Wharton Center tonight.
“I heard the song ‘The Wizard and I’ (Elphaba’s first solo number in “Wicked”) in college,” Dwyer recalled during a phone interview. “I decided I needed to learn to sing like that so that I could play that role.”
Many of Dwyer’s classmates at the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Conn., probably had the same fantasy. But Dwyer turned her daydream into a career: She spent two years on tour with “Wicked” as the understudy and stand-by for Elphaba, and last month she returned to the road as the star of the show.
But even before “Wicked,” Dwyer had already tackled another one of Menzel’s major roles. After college, Dwyer played the tempestuous diva Maureen in a worldwide tour of “Rent.”
Asked if she´s a Menzel zealot, Dwyer laughed a bit. “I definitely wouldn’t mind following in her footsteps,” she said. “I guess I’m doing OK so far. We’ll see when I get a starring role in ‘Glee’ (Menzel’s latest coup) — then I’ll be convinced.”
Dwyer says she’s excited to have another opportunity to slip into Elphaba’s black cape. “The time away from the show was a great rest from being on the road, and I am so glad I had that,” she said. “But there was definitely a part of me that wondered if I could make this role my own. As an understudy you make it your own as much as you can but you’re definitely operating in the realm of somebody else’s performance.”
As the leading lady, Dwyer feels she can find her own angle on Elphaba, the outsider at Oz’s Shiz University who initially feuds with and later befriends Galinda, her glamorous, popular roommate. Both hope to find favor with the mysterious Wizard, but Elphaba and Galinda (who changes her name to Glinda) must ultimately take different paths: The crowd-pleasing Glinda becomes known as the Good Witch of the North, while the passionate activist Elphaba gets slapped with the unwarranted title of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Dwyer’s road to Oz began in her hometown of Lynnfield, Mass. “I was a very active kid, and I couldn’t really settle down to one thing,” she recalled. “My mom told me the first time she brought me to the theater we sat in the back because she figured I wouldn’t be able to sit through the whole show.”
Apparently, Mom underestimated the power of “Cinderella.” The young Dwyer was mesmerized. “My mother asked me afterward, ‘Did you like the show?,’ and I said, ‘Yeah — I want to do that.’”
Years of school plays and performances followed. By the time she had to decide what to study in college, Dwyer already knew the answer: “There wasn’t anything else I could think of doing.”
Certainly there are thousands of young women who are likely to get the same sort of thrill seeing Dwyer soar above the Emerald City that the actress once got from watching Cinderella whirl around the ballroom.
“It’s a pretty powerhouse show,” Dwyer said of “Wicked.” “I think spectacle is what people go to see at first, but it’s really much more about friendship. It’s actually a very simple story about being accepted, about feeling different and about being misunderstood. I think everybody has felt that way at some point in life. Both Glinda and Elphaba are misunderstood, and people relate to their situation and to their friendship. Of course, the costumes are beautiful, and there’s glitter and flying monkeys — but the story is what people can relate to.”
Through July 8.
7:30 p.m.Wednesday, June 27; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 28; 8 p.m. Friday, June 29; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 30; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 1; 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 2, Tuesday, July 3 and Thursday, July 5 (no shows on July 4); 8 p.m. July 6; 2 and 8 p.m. July 7; 1 and 6:30 p.m. July 8
$38-$93. (A lottery for $25 orchestra seats takes place two and a half hours before each show; payment for lottery seats is cash-only.)
(800) WHARTON, or www.whartoncenter.com