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Wicked's Elphaba

Jennifer DiNoia talks about the role she brings to Shea’s this month

You can look at the top-grossing motion pictures of all time, and none—not Avatar, Star Wars, or Titanic; not The Sound of Music or E.T.—has earned as much as the stage musical Wicked. Not even Snow White and Seven Dwarves or Gone with the Wind has earned as much as the popular show by Stephen Schwartz and Winni Holzman, based on Gregory Maguire’s novel about what happened before Dorothy landed in Munchkinland, back when Glinda and the future Wicked Witch of the West were roommates at school.

With well over $3 billion in global earnings and no end in sight, Wicked is an entertainment powerhouse. There are currently nine productions of the show around the world: on Broadway in New York, in London’s West End, in Tokyo, Auckland, Seoul, and Mexico City; there’s a U.K. tour, and two concurrent North American national tours.

One of the American touring companies will bring the show back to Shea’s Performing Arts Center for a special 24-performance engagement, January 8-26.

For Broadway-obsessed members of the Glee Generation, the greatest role in musical theater is Elphaba, the young Wicked Witch originated by Idina Menzel, who gets to belt out the show-stopping tune, “Defying Gravity.” (I was listening to a contestant on a Sirius X/M Broadway channel quiz show who didn’t know that Mary Martin was the original Maria von Trapp, and who couldn’t name Broadway’s original Miss Adelaide, but was able to call out the names of five Broadway Elphabas without hesitation.)

For the upcoming Shea’s engagement, young and talented Jennifer DiNoia will play the role. This will be DiNoia’s first trip to Buffalo, but her fifth company of Wicked. She has played Elphaba on Broadway, and has appeared in the Chicago, Australia, and Seoul companies of the show.

“I was originally cast as a ‘swing’ back in 2006,” says DiNoia, speaking by telephone. Rather than play a part of her own, or understudy a single role, a “swing” must be ready to go on for any of several different characters at a moment’s notice.

“I did nine different female roles,” she explains. “One night I go on for the midwife. Another night I might be Elphaba’s mother. Then after I’d been on the job, doing bit parts for six months, an understudy was injured.”

DiNoia moved up.

“I became an emergency ‘cover.’ There are two covers for every role, just in case of an emergency. Well, when the injured actress came back, they kept me on.”

A standby covers a single role, and when she is not performing, she sits and waits, just in case. In this capacity, DiNoia did go on as Elphaba, a number of times—sometimes in mid-show.

“It does happen,” she reveals, “that the lead finds that she just can’t make it through a performance, and then the standby goes on. Sometimes the audience would not even notice until the announcement was made. I’d go on, and I’d notice the people in the front rows begin to look around and talk to each other: ‘Is that the same girl?’ It is such a spectacular show—music, costumes lighting.”

And of course, Elphaba’s face is painted green!

In time, DiNoia would earn the right to call the role of Elphaba her own.

“Ever since I first saw the show, I wanted to play this role,” she reveals. “But it has taken me a long time to be able to do the part eight times a week.”

DiNoia is not referring to working her way up through the Wicked ranks. It turns out that the actress who will belt out “Defying Gravity” eight times a week in Buffalo did not begin her career as a singer at all. She was originally a dancer.

“It pains me to say that I haven’t attended a dance class for five years!” admits DiNoia, “but yes, I am a dancer by training. Before this show, I had never had a voice lesson. But when I realized that I might actually get a chance to get this role, I started to study voice. The way you breathe as a dancer is entirely different from the way you breathe as a singer.”

At this point, DiNoia is truly living her dream.

The role of Elphaba has a reputation for being a voice-killer.

“I’ve seen some girls really struggle,” agrees DiNoia. “I’ve been very lucky. I haven’t had any major problems. I’ve learned how to pace myself. Tuesday is the hardest, because we’ve come off an intense weekend and I’ve had a day off. It can take some effort to get the voice flowing again.

“I’ve learned by watching other girls play the part,” continues DiNoia, “and all of the Elphabas know each other. There is an extended Wicked family, and as Elphabas, we understand each other. Until you’ve played Elphaba eight times a week, you can’t really know what we’re up against. The role is vocally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Of course, when I leave the theater, I feel terrific. I’ve screamed, I’ve gotten to purge every emotion I’ve got. When it’s over, I feel really good!”

DiNoia adds the another benefit of such a taxing show is that she gets to indulge her healthy appetite without worry. “I think I burn 20 pounds just playing this role. I can eat all I want. And I do enjoy trying new restaurants when I’m on tour.”

In addition to her supportive extended Wicked family and a Glinda who is “really terrific,” DiNoia enjoys being known as one of the elite members of the Elphaba club by fans of Wicked.

“It is really nice,” she says, “that I am actually known by my fans. The show caters to everyone, but young girls in particular gravitate towards the female leads. We all have elements of both Glinda and of Elphaba to us. Other people relate in different ways. We all struggle with love and feelings about our place in the world.”

DiNoia found this to be especially pronounced in South Korea.

“It was fascinating to do the show in a place where people did not really know The Wizard of Oz story,” she says. “And yet they did relate to our show. They didn’t get any of the movie references, so those jokes were lost entirely, but they did relate to the characters. Also, musical theater is huge in Korea right now. They are more reserved people than we are in the United States, but in the theater they enjoy that release of emotion. It was wonderful to hear the audiences burst out with laughter and applause.”

DiNoia will finish this tour of Wicked in March and then get married in April. Her plans for the future?

“Well there are many roles I’d love to play. I’d love to do Thoroughly Modern Millie—a role that would let me both sing and dance. But you know, I’d really like to come back to do Wicked again!”