'Wicked' Charms, At Least for a Spell

Witchy women: Stephanie J. Block, left, is Elphaba, and Kendra Kassebaum stars as Glinda.
Witchy women: Stephanie J. Block, left, is Elphaba, and Kendra Kassebaum stars as Glinda. "Wicked's" 31/2-week run at the Kennedy Center is sold out. (Photos By Joan Marcus)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 24, 2005

Come on, admit it: There was no love lost between you and the homecoming queen. Oh, you'd congratulate her and all -- if she deigned to acknowledge you -- but underneath, you resented all the validation heaped on her and her golden-girl smile. What was the word you whispered to your friends? Plastic? And didn't you always need to believe that she must be, at some level, a real witch?

An ingenious gambit in "Wicked" is to take an essential dynamic of high school life -- our love-hate for the popular girl -- and graft it onto America's beloved fable, "The Wizard of Oz." That perhaps helps to explain why audiences, especially younger ones, go gaga for the glitzy, preachy and ultimately overcooked musical, which opened Thursday for a sold-out, 3 1/2 -week run in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

You see, years before she floated into Munchkinland in that bubble of hers, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, was the chirpy epicenter of attention at Shiz University. There, "Wicked" posits, she roomed with a green-skinned girl named Elphaba, destined to become the Wicked Witch of the West. In a reversal of her role in L. Frank Baum's famous stories, as well as in the timeless MGM movie, the wicked witch is the one now for whom we all melt. Her invented back story paints Elphaba as a sensitive crusader who's demonized by the venomous publicity machine of a corrupt government.

We would all do well, it seems, to channel our inner Wicked Witch of the West.

Unfortunately, though, "Wicked," directed by Joe Mantello, takes all the delicious capital it amasses in Act 1, forging a rivalry between Glinda and Elphaba, and squanders it on a moralizing second act. The book writer, Winnie Holzman, envelops the story of their friendship in an ungainly political parable that casts the Wizard of Oz as a hack with a habit of creating diversionary devils. First he persecutes an Ozian minority group, the talking animals, and then, after animal-friendly Elphaba refuses to join forces with him, it's she who becomes the wizard's target.

The wizard, played with subtly camouflaged shiftiness by a terrific David Garrison, explains his tactic toward the end of Act 1 in terms even the most casual student of the Bush administration is supposed to recognize. "Where I come from," he says, "everyone knows the best way to bring people together is to give them a really good enemy."

Whether you believe the knocks are earned, it cheapens the memory of "The Wizard of Oz" to so blatantly underline the "W" in "Wicked." (Late in the show, after Dorothy's house lands on Elphaba's sister Nessarose, aka the Wicked Witch of the East, Elphaba asks Glinda to describe the event. "A regime change," Glinda replies.) Although facile editorializing doesn't completely overwhelm the story, it tends to expose the seams in Holzman's script, an extremely loose adaptation of Gregory Maguire's engrossing 1995 novel, "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West." In fact, the musical loses its way any time it isn't dramatizing the tug-of-war between the two women.

That includes most of the deeply second-rate production numbers, set at Shiz and the Emerald City, and all featuring the lackluster choreography of Wayne Cilento. (The low point is a number-within-a-number, "Wiz-O-Mania," intended as Broadway satire, that also reveals Eugene Lee's sets and Susan Hilferty's costumes at the apex of their garishness.) And it extends to many of the run-of-the-mill tunes by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the score for "Godspell" as well as the lyrics for Disney's animated "Pocahontas." In "Wicked," the actors power through ballad after souped-up ballad, and a lot of the songs begin to sound cloyingly alike.

The exceptions are a few soaring solos delivered with charm and goose-pimply power by the touring show's Glinda and Elphaba, Kendra Kassebaum and Stephanie L. Block. "Popular," Glinda's perky tribute to her own social supremacy, is handled elegantly by Kassebaum, who sings wittily in the key of self-absorption. And Block is simply stunning, her voice rising thrillingly to the challenges of "The Wizard and I" and even more potently in the Act 1 finale, "Defying Gravity." Floating above the stage and bathed in Kenneth Posner's multicolored shafts of light, Block is a Powerpuff Girl of the night Oz sky.

Kassebaum and Block -- like the roles' respective Broadway originators, Kristin Chenoweth and the Tony-winning Idina Menzel -- are the show's entertaining bulwarks, the spinners of whatever success it can claim. Unlike Maguire's novel, which for most of its 400 pages follows Elphaba, the script for "Wicked" divvies up the narrative pretty evenly between the two women. Holzman, creator of the TV cult favorite "My So-Called Life" (with Claire Danes), envisions Elphaba and Glinda as being locked in one those opposites-attract relationships that makes complete sense only to them. Think "Beaches," set Over the Rainbow.

The tension between Elphaba and Glinda -- as well as other invented Oz characters and places -- have been retained from the novel. Little of the dark plot, though, remains intact. Murders, for instance, of Elphaba's lover Fiyero (Derrick Williams) and a goat-professor named Dillamond (Timothy Britten Parker) have been erased, and the violent inclinations of Elphaba in her role as animal-rights activist have been toned down. In the novel, she attempts to assassinate a college administrator, Madame Morrible, whom she believes responsible for Dillamond's killing. Here, to bolster the story's political relevance, Morrible (Carole Shelley) is recruited by the Wizard as his press secretary.

The musical's first half is more satisfying because it keeps to the story's most penetrating track, the emergence of Elphaba as a powerful person, both in her own eyes and in Glinda's. (The musical is less about wickedness than it is about female friendship.) But what's earned before the first-act curtain seems lost again after intermission. The question of Glinda's loyalty is once again up for grabs, and, infuriated by Fiyero's inconstancy (he's with each of the women for a while), Glinda participates in a betrayal of Elphaba that is truly despicable. With too many threads exposed, "Wicked" doesn't have time to create an emotionally convincing path to its conciliatory conclusion.

Along the way, too, "Wicked" metes out appropriate justice for the Wizard and Madame Morrible, tells us how the ruby slippers came to be and even explains the origins of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. For the artful tying-up of all those loose ends, it seems, the creators of overstuffed "Wicked" never found their magic wand.

Wicked, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; book by Winnie Holzman. Directed by Joe Mantello. Orchestrations, William David Brohn; music supervisor, Stephen Oremus; sound, Tony Meola; special effects, Chic Silber. With Jenna Leigh Green, Dominic Chaiduang and Logan Lipton. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Jan. 15 at Kennedy Center Opera House. The run is sold out.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company