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Wicked, the Musical

Enchantingly Light

There really is no place like home, that magical fantasy realm we often prefer to the real thing. You know the home I'm talking about -- the place where incredulity is suspended in favor of schlocky family fare, nostalgia, and the belief that no matter how bad things are, it always "turns out" in the end. That's where classic sagas of unreality, like The Wizard of Oz (at least in its technicolor incarnation) come in. The musical Wicked, the sensation which took home 14 major awards (including a few Grammys and Tonys), plays up to the fanciful expectations of diehard Broadway lovers, in its limited engagement at the Orpheum Theatre.

Wicked is The Wizard of Oz retold, or rather, a prequel. It's the story of the good witch Glinda (a perky prom queen ditz played to wonderful effect by Kendra Kassebaum) and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, a gawky deadpan outcast with a soft heart (brought to life by a powerful Eden Espinosa). This wicked witch, however, bears little resemblance to the 1939 film version's proto-villain, played by Margaret Hamilton, a hook-nosed harridan with a cackle to make your hair stand on end.

The musical has all the earmarks of a rollicking fantasy: a dragon over the stage proscenium whose eyes light up red (but otherwise has little bearing on the show), flying monkeys, tons of dry ice, glitzy costumes, and the whole shebang. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if darkness and subversion weren't so underutilized. Gregory Maguire wrote the 1995 novel that the musical is based on, a stoic, textured read that's more of a commentary on rising police states, the depletion of natural resources, and political doublespeak than a resurrection of L. Frank Baum's whimsical wonderland. Maguire casts Elphaba as the misunderstood strategic genius rechristened by her enemies as the Wicked Witch of the West.

The musical (which was written by Winnie Holzman, mastermind behind teen dramas like "My So-Called Life"; with a score by Stephen Schwartz) is a sentimental account of the friendship of two women who are polar opposites: Glinda and Elphaba. It's equipped with love triangles, betrayals, teary reconciliations, and heartrending duets; an effervescent odyssey of a play that's more about growing pains than the grave political issues Maguire raises in his novel.

The musical begins with the good witch Glinda announcing the "meltification of the wicked witch" and the joyous townspeople bursting into a song called "No One Mourns the Wicked." Then time turns back to the story of Elphaba, the wicked witch-cum-leftist with principles who is shunned by Ozians after a callous political maneuver that conveniently selects her as its scapegoat.

Glinda is a political opportunist -- spoiled, shallow, vain, full of malapropisms, yet insufferably cute -- who became Elphaba's roommate in college and developed a strange affinity for the green-skinned loner whose inklings of rebellion took root in a class taught by a talking goat. But of course, we don't want to get too carried away by such minor details. The important thing to elicit is that this version of the story is about friendship, loyalty, and the times when the appeal of belonging is tested by a commitment to one's own integrity.

Kassebaum and Espinosa sparkle as Glinda and Elphaba, respectively, while the remainder of the cast is passable. Film and television veteran Carol Kane plays the scheming, unctuous college dean, Madame Morrible, who takes Elphaba under her wing when she senses the simmering adolescent's penchant for magic (or maybe it's just a poltergeist); and David Garrison (of "Married With Children") plays the Wizard of Oz, a happy-go-lucky showman with a vaudevillian schtick. Fiyero, a vapid prince who can't decide which witch he prefers (you can just hear him weighing Elphaba and Glinda in his head: fame or fairness? perky cheerleader or green guerilla insurgent?), is played by Derrick Williams, who's hunky but ever so slightly off-key.

Kassebaum's Glinda displays both irony and charm in her physical movements, and her ingratiating trilling during the makeover song "Popular" is one of the highlights of the show. The fog, light effects, and pyrotechnics of Elphaba's flying scene during the song "Defying Gravity" make Espinosa the showstopper of the event, however. Her voice throbs with the dramatic vigor and resonance of an orchestra.

Most people come to see the show because of Eugene Lee's Emerald City spectacle, which summons up images of what a Mardi Gras netherworld might look like, and Susan Hilferty's coruscating costumes, which look like a twelve-year-old's idea of beauty pageant garb…in a good way, of course. But we can't forget this is a musical, and for this kind of form, it's rare that the acting eclipses the old song-and-dance routine.
Not so for Wicked.

By the end of the evening, I could remember a few wink-and-nod Oz references, but the songs proved themselves to be unmemorable. This is apropos for a story that gainsays the heavy thematic content of the novel, one can just imagine Schwartz and Holzman collaborating on ways to make the piece as buoyant and unexacting as possible…which usually doesn't lend itself to addictive melodies and lyrics. But if you came for the big dragon and flying monkeys, who cares, right? Political metaphors and big questions absented, Wicked is aural and visual fun for the family.

Wicked plays through September 11 at the Orpheum Theatre.

Friday and Saturday, 8pm
Saturday and Sunday, 2pm
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8pm
Wednesdays, 2pm

Tickets, $35- $80