It’s not easy being green. Or blonde, for that matter. Those are just two of the many lessons to be learned from this big, murky new Broadway musical. But maybe the most salient pointer is that it ain’t easy being a Broadway musical. A strenuous effort to be all things to all people tends to weigh down this lumbering, overstuffed $14 million production. “Wicked” is stridently earnest one minute, self-mocking the next; a fantastical allegory about the perils of fascism in one scene, a Nickelodeon special about the importance of inner beauty in another. There are flying monkeys, flying witches and flying scenery, but the musical itself truly soars only on rare occasions, usually when one of its two marvelously talented leading ladies, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, unleashes the kind of vocal magic that needs no supernatural or even technical assistance.
The musical’s cumbersome plot has its roots in Gregory Maguire’s novel of the same name. A hyper-clever “prequel” to L. Frank Baum classic “The Wizard of Oz,” which of course inspired the beloved movie, the book is a windy exercise in literary subversion. It turns over the magical tapestry of Baum’s tale and reveals the messy knots of yarn on the backside, providing an apologia for the much-maligned Wicked Witch and questioning the comfortingly simple definitions of good and evil retailed by children’s book writers.
Maguire also supplies inventive answers to questions you never thought to ask: Why was the witch green, anyway? Where’d she get the flying monkeys? But the book’s slender charm as a literary conceit is sandbagged by its pretensions, with reams of theological, sociological and psychological gobbledygook sprinkled across its 400 pages.
The musical’s book, by Winnie Holzman (creator of the TV series “My So-Called Life”), smartly trims, condenses and clarifies the novel’s wayward plot. But it is still a bewildering thicket of themes, characters and throwaway gags that allude to beloved elements of the original. (Perhaps tellingly, the evening’s heartiest laughter seems to arise whenever the newfangled legend intersects with some iconic moment or object from the original.)
Chenoweth, making a delicious return to Broadway as Glinda the Good, enters aloft, in a silver bubble, to announce the demise of the nefarious Witch of the West. This is perhaps not a savvy starting point, since the dark, bombastic chorus that composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz chooses to relate this news contrasts unhappily with the zippy classic Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg cooked up for the same occasion in the MGM picture.
The musical then unfolds as a long flashback. It seems the Wicked Witch was once a misfit teen named Elphaba (Menzel), mocked and reviled for the curious hue of her skin. Galinda — soon to be Glinda, the vowel excised for no fathomable reason — makes her acquaintance when they are both enrolled in the U. of Shiz, and their contrasting personalities and priorities strike sparks. Chenoweth’s Glinda is the pert, pretty, lovably spoiled and snobbish picture of self-satisfaction, and the actress’s bright bugle of a voice and laser-sharp comic timing turn her every exclamation into a zinger. (“The artichoke is steamed,” she quips merrily when Elphaba flares up in anger.) Elphaba, the outcast who wears glasses and drab clothes, natch, takes an instant dislike to her new roommate, too.
In one of the evening’s livelier and most appealing numbers, they sing a comic anthem of mutual disdain: “What is this feeling? Fervid as a flame. Does it have a name? Yes! It’s loathing, unadulterated loathing!” Their antipathy, and Holzman’s natural affinity for the tortures of teenhood, might have supplied continuing zest, but through a complicated series of transactions that endow Glinda with a magic wand and Elphaba with her signature pointy chapeau, they are soon reconciled, for a while, at least.
And with that, the musical plods off on a long yellow brick road of conflicts and complications dancing around the general themes of the trials of self-realization and the individual in conflict with the social order. While the budding witches study sorcery under the suspiciously enthusiastic tutelage of Madame Morrible (Carole Shelley, vamping merrily somewhere between Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury in “Sweeney Todd”), we learn that in Oz, animals have advanced to the talking stage. But dark forces are attempting to strip away their rights and privileges.
At times, this threatens to turn the musical into a heavy-handed piece of propaganda for PETA: “Can you imagine a world where animals are kept in cages? And they never speak?” asks the enraged Elphaba, who vows to use her powers to fight the oppression of the animal species. The musical does not shrink from drawing larger contemporary parallels, either. Elphaba meets her foe when she finally encounters the Wiz himself, played with his trademark fleet-footed, impish charm by Joel Grey. After singing a jaunty vaudevillian number about being “A Sentimental Man,” the Wiz reveals he’s the one behind the systematic oppression: “Where I come from, everyone knows: The best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy.”
That kind of didacticism isn’t easy to pull off in a musical that spends much of the second act exploring a trite love triangle between Elphaba, Glinda and the curiously indistinct character of Fiyero (Norbert Leo Butz), who veers weirdly between shallowness and nobility (maybe because he’s a composite of two characters in the book).
It is hardly surprising, in the end, that “Wicked’s” jarring jumble of tones and styles defeats talented director Joe Mantello, who seems overwhelmed by the demands of the medium, not to mention the less-than-first-rate contributions of some of his collaborators.
Schwartz is famed for his smooth, upbeat scores for shows such as “Godspell” and “Pippin,” as well as collaborations with Alan Menken on a pair of Disney animated features. From the beginning, he seemed an ill fit for this ambitiously subversive material and, indeed, the show’s score features far too many competent but bland anthems written in an easy-listening Broadway pop mode.
Eugene Lee is one of the few set designers with ample experience at the troublingly spacious Gershwin Theater, and he certainly knows how to contract the dimensions of its cavernous proscenium. He frames the show in a gloomy, elaborate and certainly impressive scaffolding of massive gears and platforms, topped by a giant mechanical dragon. But the scale of the sets, which borrow elements from his finer work on “Sweeney Todd” and “Ragtime,” seem to add to the weight bearing down on the musical unfolding beneath it.
Also in less than top form is costume designer Susan Hilferty. Her garish array of costumes for the Oz citizens uses distorted Victorian silhouettes to inventive but ultimately overbearing effect. And the less said about Wayne Cilento’s undistinguished choreography, the better. The most alarming moment in the evening depicts the witches’ arrival in the Emerald City: Here Cilento’s disco-Broadway dancing, Hilferty’s loud costumes and Schwartz’s power pop score unmistakably bring to mind one of the most ludicrous moments from another trip to Oz, Sidney Lumet’s overblown film “The Wiz.” (You know, that insanely over-the-top red-gold-green number?)
In fact, Mantello’s most impressive collaborators here are his two stars, who manage to glitter in distinct styles even in this often oppressive atmosphere. Menzel is not given a lot to work with — beyond being green and good, her character doesn’t have much definition. But she performs with an appealing simplicity, and her powerful voice is perfectly suited to the ardent, emotional anthems that pepper the score. Granted, the songs tend to sound similar, but the metallic edge in Menzel’s voice cuts through the synthesizer-heavy orchestrations with an ease and electricity that inspires shivers.
As for Chenoweth, she has simply been given a form-fitting role. She gets all the best wisecracks and reveals the freshness and flexibility of her silvery lyric soprano on songs both comic and sincere (her peppy paean to the glories of being “Popular” is probably the evening’s highlight). Playing Glinda as a spoiled child whose balloons keep getting burst, she effortlessly lights up the stage whenever she unveils her disingenuously sweet smile, flashes a steely look from her bright eyes or primly flips her blond tresses.
There is indeed a bit of witchcraft in the way this diminutive performer, slogging through a muddled musical on what is probably Broadway’s largest stage, beams her way into the hearts of folks in the back row of the balcony. Magic wand not needed.