'Wicked' fun on stage at Kennedy Center

Theater Review


Wicked is a blockbuster, special effects-laden, showstopper-brimming musical. But at its core, it's a story about the unlikely friendship between two teenaged girls, and that's where the musical works its most potent magic.

The lead producer of this 2003 Broadway musical -- and of the touring production at Washington's Kennedy Center -- is native Baltimorean Marc Platt, former president of Universal Pictures. In Hollywood terminology, if you were going to describe what the show is about, you might call it: Clueless meets Harry Potter meets The Wizard of Oz.

The last of these is the most significant. Songwriter Stephen Schwartz and librettist Winnie Holzman based the show on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. In the musical, as in the novel, we learn not only what makes the Wicked Witch wicked, but also the origin of the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the flying monkeys.

Although the musical doesn't break new theatrical ground, it's immensely clever and, combined with Schwartz's catchy score, Susan Hilferty's fanciful costumes and a host of strong performances under Joe Mantello's direction, the result is wickedly entertaining.

A cult favorite among teenaged girls, Wicked, not unlike Hairspray, transforms the outcast (in this case, a girl with green skin) into one of the most popular girls in school, gives her a social conscience and allows her to win the attentions of the most popular boy.

Wicked begins with the death of the green-skinned Wicked Witch and flashes backward, a device that roots the new story in the familiar territory established in L. Frank Baum's classic, The Wizard of Oz. Beyond all of the glitzy special effects, however, what makes the musical extra special is the way it turns an archetypal villainess into a sympathetic figure.

In the touring production, added credit for this goes to Stephanie J. Block, who first played the Wicked Witch -- whose name is Elphaba -- in the show's initial readings. From her opening song, "The Wizard and I," all the way through to "For Good," her stunning, final duet with Glinda the Good Witch, Block imbues the green girl with a relatively complex mixture of feelings and motives. Her Elphaba projects an unexpected tinge of sweetness along with the egotism that stems from being gifted (she has magical powers) and from over-compensating for being shunned.

In contrast, perky Glinda could come across as little more than a bubble-headed cheerleader type, but Kendra Kassebaum -- an actress who suggests a combination of Reese Witherspoon and Bernadette Peters -- lets us see how her friendship with Elphaba, whom she initially loathes, leaves her "changed for good," as the lyrics put it in that last duet.

Also changed by his association with Elphaba is rich, spoiled Fiyero, the love interest of both girls. Adding an extra layer to their relationship, in this production, Fiyero is played by a black actor, Derrick Williams. Not only does this casting create a love triangle whose participants are white, black and green, but Glinda's colorblind romance with Fiyero reinforces the theme of the senselessness of bigotry.

Wicked also has a subplot about discrimination against animals. But then, the show is so heavily plotted -- and peppered with a thinly veiled progressive political agenda -- that it demands a theatergoer's unwavering attention. This demand is strained by some difficult-to-decipher lyrics in the colorful Munchkinland and Emerald City crowd scenes and an overly busy set design by Eugene Lee. And, director Mantello's reliance on in-your-face, front-and-center staging is the show's least creative aspect.

What keeps you in thrall, however, are the songs, characterizations and performances. In addition to the principals, notable work is done by David Garrison, as an authentically Midwestern-sounding Wizard; Carole Shelley, reprising her Broadway role as a self-serving headmistress-turned-spin doctor; and Timothy Britten Parker as the goat / teacher who spurs Elphaba's campaign to save the animals.

"It might be keen / to build a town of green," the Wizard sings in his signature song, "Wonderful." A megahit, Wicked has been painting towns green wherever it plays. The Kennedy Center's 3 1 / 2 -week run sold out the day that tickets went on sale. Maybe that's wizardry or maybe it's good marketing -- or, in the spirit of the Great Oz himself, maybe they're one and the same.



WICKED / / Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues, N.W., Washington. Through Jan. 15. $42-$94. (Sold out, but check box office for last-minute availability.) 800-444-1324 or www.kennedy-center.org.

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