At Kennedy Center, “Wicked’s” heart shines like emeralds

What accounts for the truly devotional impact of “Wicked”? People don’t just pay to see this show, which is making a return, summer-long visit to the Kennedy Center; they open their wallets as if it were their obligation to tithe for Elphaba and Glinda (and, of course, the musical’s savvy investors).

Eight years after its opening, it is still regularly Broadway’s top-grossing show. Last week, it took in $1.7 million in New York — the nearest empty seats were in a diner down the block. In the Kennedy Center Opera House, center orchestra seats for evening performances are selling for up to $250 each, and are going fast. The musical’s reach, measured in other terms: When “Glee’s” Kurt and Rachel traveled to show-choir nationals in New York, their dream-come-true moment was singing a “Wicked” tune on the Broadway stage.

I’ve never developed the kind of spiritual attachment to “Wicked” that other musicals have engendered — it’s difficult to get past the surfeit of plot, and the visual garishness — although in my visit to the show Wednesday night, the third of my career, I was touched in a way I hadn’t been before. That’s because this touring “Wicked,” in Washington until late August, features Dee Roscioli as a compellingly earthy and funny Elphaba — the green-skinned Oz-ian who wills herself into the persona of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Roscioli — who has played the role, on Broadway combined with the road, more times than any other actress — has such acute antennae for the insecurities and anger of one who’s grown up with reject status that Elphaba’s suffering becomes far more embraceable: This affinity gives the character’s liberating anthem of self-discovery, “Defying Gravity,” an extra injection of energy and meaning.

Paired with Amanda Jane Cooper’s supercilious campus princess of a Glinda, this Elphaba does seem the embodiment of outsiderness that “Wicked” illuminates. The vitality and, yes, the complexity of Elphaba and Glinda’s friendship — a confluence of jealousy, affection, competitiveness, ego and mutual admiration — holds up a mirror to every theatrically intense relationship an ordinary teenager lives through. Perhaps because this powerful bonding seems the special purview of adolescent girls (I’m raising one), “Wicked” seals a particularly intimate pact with them, as evidenced in the legions of young women filling the opera house seats.

“Wicked,” with an infectiously pulsing score by Stephen Schwartz, is the environmentally and politically conscious back story of “The Wizard of Oz,” told from the points of view of one witch labeled good and the other wicked. But labels, the show informs us, are never to be trusted — one of the hardest truths to drum into high schoolers’ heads.

No one in “Wicked” is truly good: certainly not the simpering politician of a Wizard (an excellent Mark Jacoby) and not sequin-saturated Glinda, who for the longest time believes the most important attribute she could bestow on Elphaba would be soul-withering popularity. No one, for that matter, is really bad, either, not even the much maligned flying monkeys (which have scared the dickens out of watchers of the 1939 MGM movie for generations). Here, they’re ill-treated prisoners of the Wizard, freed by Elphaba.

Following along as the emotional ties deepen between two young women coming into their own, you realize that no other major modern musical conjures the power of this dynamic with anything like “Wicked’s” care. And maybe that is a facet of its peculiar magnetism. The musical’s book, or script, writer, Winnie Holtzman, adapting Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, pays homage to other manifestations of female power, with cheeky intimations of everything from “Carrie” to “Evita.” Bad girls, it seems are always being misunderstood.

Under Joe Mantello’s fussy direction, “Wicked,” alas, mutes its strengths: Susan Hilferty’s costumes and Eugene Lee’s scenery overreach in the attempt to give Oz the glaze of fantasy: the Emerald City — “Wicked’s” impression of cosmopolitanism— is a neon-green grotesquerie (besides the obvious color-match, is this really where sensible Elphaba would feel at home?). And while Holtzman’s book elicits chills as it weaves in clever origin stories for the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, the sheer volume of storytelling endows the evening with an unnecessary feeling of bloat.

The national tour, visiting Washington for the first time since 2005, sounds first-rate. Cooper ably recalls Glinda’s originator, Kristin Chenoweth, in her comic timing for “Popular,” and she and Roscioli mesh expertly in their second act duet, “For Good.” Randy Danson’s Madame Morrible is as persuasive an inhabitant of that oleaginous part as you’re likely to encounter, and Colin Hanlon is a dashing presence as Fiyero, the romantic wedge between Elphaba and Glinda.

Thankfully in this installment, “Wicked’s” foundation is firm: You emerge with a slight lump in your throat, for what the green girl and the blond girl mean for each other. Friends really can come through, here and over the rainbow.

Wicked

music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holtzman. Directed by Joe Mantello. Musical staging, Wayne Cilento; music supervisor, Stephen Oremus; costumes, Susan Hilferty; sets, Eugene Lee; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Tony Meola; orchestrations, William David Brohn. With Stefani Brown, Justin Brill, Randy Danson. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Aug. 21 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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