By: Simon Saltzman
Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda on Broadway.
Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda in Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre in New York City. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Have you heard that somewhere beyond the rainbow is the dark side of Oz, where witches are not easily defined as either good or bad, where beauty can be skin deep as well as green, but mostly where all the background is prepared for Dorothy's visit. It is all within Gregory Maguire's novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," a cleverly conceived (I am told) prequel to Frank L. Baum's beloved children's classic "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," which, of course, led to the film "The Wizard of Oz."
In the sumptuous and ambitious new $14 million musical "Wicked," based on Maguire's novel, there is only a respectful, but amusing, nod to Baum's heroine Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. But the musical collaborators, Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics), Winnie Holzman (book) and supported by Joe Mantello's amazing direction, have accomplished much more than a respectable job in re-envisioning this darker Oz for the stage. They have created Oz not only as a land where monkeys and witches fly and making magic is almost commonplace, but also where the fantastical is corruptible and where those who value freedom and disavow hypocrisy, have been labeled wicked.
If that sounds a little heavy going for a musical that clearly will attract children as well as adults, it is, at times. Not having read the novel, I can't attest to whether the musical copies the same satirical thrust of the novel, but I would wager that the campy tone that buoys the text when it gets a bit too moralizing is probably unique to the musical. What is also genuinely unique to this musical is the pairing of Christine Chenoweth, who plays Glinda nee Galinda, the good witch and Idina Menzel, who plays the wicked witch Elphaba. These two extraordinary musical theater talents get equal opportunities to create performance magic.
Petite and luminous, blonde and lovely Chenoweth has not only a coloratura to die for but nails every laugh as the enchantingly self-adulating Glinda. Green-skinned Menzel sets the stage ablaze with her belting soprano and riveting portrayal of the unjustly maligned Elphaba.
While both Glinda and Elphaba, seen as friends since childhood, have their individual personality flaws, rivalry and conflicted alliances, they are joined in a sisterhood that ultimately triumphs. One scene in which Glinda, who is still learning to use her wand, tries wholeheartedly to turn Elphaba in someone "Popular" (one of the best songs in the show) and pretty is a howl and one of the show's many highlights.
For savvy adults and mature children, the musical, told in flashback from the point where the farm house lands on and kills Alphaba's sister witch Nessarose, unfolds with large dollops of humor dropped into Glinda's retelling of Alphaba's journey to this point. The journey reveals Glinda as not quite as good as she could be, and Elphaba as an outcast and animal activist who is soon embittered when her idealism is denounced in a land ruled by political correctness, racism, and a corrupt government.
"Wicked" weaves just enough thematic elements from the more familiar "Oz" stories into the text to keep the faithful happy and the uninitiated curious and attentive. Although the plot is dense with convoluted twists and turns (notwithstanding the comforting, although brief, appearance of the yellow brick road), it is also wry and intelligent enough to withstand scrutiny. For many of us, just finding out why the wicked witch is green, how the monkeys got to fly, and what made Elphaba wicked is worth the steep price of admission.
There are many worthy supporting roles. Carole Shelley is terrific as Madame Morrible, the duplicitous head mistress at the school for sorcery that Glinda attends and where she first meets Elphaba. Sent there initially by her unloving parents to watch over her crippled sister Nessarose (Michelle Federer), Elphaba becomes Glinda's roommate and lifelong friend.
The school boasts a goat-professor who is soon victimized (tenderly portrayed by William Youman). Then there is a Prince Fiyero (played with charm to spare by Norbert Leo Butz), who is loved by both Glinda and Elphaba; an engaging Munchkin (Christopher Fitzgerald), and, of course, the most endearing and expectedly ineffectual Wizard of Oz, played with consummate panache by Joel Grey. Grey gets to perform a lovely song and dance number called "A Sentimental Man," that smacks of "Mr. Cellophane" (from " Chicago"), but he's a charmer and it works.
Schwartz' rich and possibly too vibrant score contains songs that will please upon first hearing, but also reflects the fury of contemporary theater compositions that rely more on exclamatory sound than on melodic sincerity. The production, under Mantella's direction, is an eye-filling spectacle of imaginative effects, including a huge smoke exhaling dragon, flying monkeys, witches and soaring scenery by set designer Eugene Lee and Paul Rubin/ZFX, for the flying sequences. Now if you only had a magic wand to get you seats.
Gershwin Theater, 222 West 51st Street
For tickets ($40 - $100) call 212 – 307 – 4100