When about a dozen members of the ensemble cast of the smash Broadway hit “Wicked” recently dropped in on Children’s Hospital, they may have met one of their most discerning critics right here in the Central Valley.
“I’ll let you know if I like it,” said 6-year-old Andrew Rodriguez of Bakersfield to Glinda the Good Witch as he and 75 other sick and injured patients, family members and Hospital staff and volunteers gathered excitedly to watch the group perform.
Dressed casually in black “Wicked” T-shirts and sweatshirts, Glinda – along with Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West, Boq, flying monkeys and more – sang familiar songs from “Wicked” and other well-known productions including “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Pinocchio.”
Part of “Wicked’s” second national tour, the longest running Broadway musical is bedazzling audiences of all ages during its 11-day stint in Fresno at the Saroyan Theatre. On the play’s opening night, over 1,000 generous friends and supporters of the Guilds of Children’s Hospital Central California brought in more than $120,000 to benefit The Guilds Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Endowment.
“Everywhere we go we try to visit the local children’s hospitals and Ronald McDonald houses to sing a few songs and bring a few smiles,” said Lesley McKinnell, understudy Glinda, while the ensemble’s piano player warmed up with a few tunes, and patients – several of them in wheelchairs or with IV poles – streamed in. “It’s a way for us to give back to the communities we visit in a different way than just performing.”
Long before Dorothy enters the picture, “Wicked” tells the story of two other girls who meet in the Land of Oz. One born with emerald green skin is smart, fiery and misunderstood, while the other is beautiful, ambitious and very popular. These two unlikely friends embark on a remarkable journey. Their friendship struggles through their opposing personalities and viewpoints, rivalry over the same love interest, their reactions to the Wizard’s corrupt government and, ultimately, Elphaba’s public fall from grace.
One of the themes of the play is that people come into our lives for different reasons. Given the many bright eyes and happy faces of the children and others watching the “Wicked” ensemble cast at Children’s, the reason seemed very apparent this day.
“The whole show was incredible,” said Brittany Blaylock, a 16-year-old neurosurgery inpatient from Merced. “It makes me feel good – and special.”
Seeing the performers was especially meaningful for Brittany. She and her family had tickets to the show opening night but couldn’t go. “That was the day she got admitted to Children’s,” said Brittany’s mom, Tonya Blaylock. “But now she had a chance to see and hear them – it’s wonderful.”
Shortly after the 30-minute performance, the cast mingled with the audience, hugging and laughing with patients.
“Just looking at these kids, I was choking up before I started to sing,” said Laurel Harris, understudy Elphaba, glancing at the crowd. “These children are so brave.”
All of Harris’ co-cast members, including Michael Drolet, understudy Boq, and flying monkeys Justin Wirick and Ryan Jackson, agreed.
“This is very rewarding, a blessing for us to be able to do,” said Drolet.
“It’s a great way to give back, sing other material, to see the kids respond,” said Wirick. “They give back to us just as much – if not more.”
Jackson added, “To be around kids and families and make a difference with them? We’re twice as blessed.”
Mary Beth Jones, supervisor, child life services at Children’s, said that the Hospital greatly appreciates when the “Wicked” cast and others visit. “There are so many good groups and people who come here for the children,” said Jones. “It really lifts their spirits and cheers them up. It also gives them an opportunity to see things they wouldn’t normally get to see.”
But what about little Andrew? Did the “Wicked” performance at Children’s meet his high expectations?
“Oh I liked it very much,” said Andrew, smiling and wiggling in his seat. “It was great!” Andrew’s mom, Esmeralda Rodriguez, said it made her happy to see her son happy. “They did a great job,” said Esmeralda, whose son has been hospitalized for more than two months with Valley fever. “And it’s a nice distraction for the kids from their illness – at least for a little while.”
After all, as Tiffany Haas, understudy Glinda said, “No matter where you are, the bottom line is that all children are the same – very special – and that’s so wonderful.”