Ding, dong, the witch’s prognosis is uncertain at this stage of “Wicked,” the much-hyped musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s bestselling novel. In its “pre-Broadway world premiere” at the Curran Theater in San Francisco, the show presents an impressive-looking, often theatrically engaging package that nonetheless steps in potholes aplenty along a three-hour road whose yellow bricking is as yet highly uneven.
This fanciful prequel-slash-retort to the classic MGM “Wizard of Oz” (far more than to the original Frank L. Baum books) offers the Wicked Witch of the West’s sympathetic backstory. The concept is irresistible, and it was imaginatively worked out in the crossover tome by children’s author Maguire.
A certain page-to-stage shrinkage of ideas was inevitable. But Winnie Holzman’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s score too often flatten out the source material in cliched crowd-pleasing ways, creating a heavy-handed parable about intolerance and hypocrisy that takes itself far too seriously — without any of the sophistication that allowed “Into the Woods” (an obvious comparison point) to juggle fairy tale fancy, grownup satire and character poignancy.
Gluey, banal sentiment reaches artery-choking levels several times here; more wit and whimsy is called for. Whether “Wicked” can achieve a sharper, more streamlined tone (not to mention running time) before braving Gotham is a very good question indeed. For the problem lies less in the production — sleekly directed by Joe Mantello, snazzily designed, for the most part smartly cast — than with a mediocre book, trite lyrics and largely generic music.
The show opens at the scene of the Wicked Witch’s death, although Dorothy is never actually named or seen during the evening. Descending via trademark bubble, Glinda the Good (Kristin Chenoweth) leads the citizens of Oz in gloating that “No One Mourns the Wicked.”
Amidst the press-conference-like appearance, however, someone asks if it’s true that Glinda and the W.W. of the West were once friends. The former reluctantly admits as much, leading us into Flashbackland, where we’ll stay until the end.
Turns out the Witch, aka Elphaba (Idina Menzel), was the result of her mom’s alcoholism — born an “obscene” green, the hue of a favored cocktail. Hoping to avoid repeating this disaster, ma dosed herself with something else during the next pregnancy. But Nessarose (Michelle Federer) emerged with damaged legs, putting her in a wheelchair — which she can never rise above, nor stop blaming on the elder sister who’s thoughtlessly assigned to be her permanent helpmate.
That’s the only reason Elphaba gets shuttled alongside the presumed-gifted Nessarose to a school of magic presided over by waspish Madame Morrible (Carole Shelley). But an early moment of panic suggests the ugly duckling has untapped potential as a sorceress.
This further “difference,” however, does nothing to make her any better liked by her callow fellow classmates, even when uber-blonde queen of conformists Glinda is forced to become “the artichoke’s” roommate.
Both girls’ attentions are waylaid by the arrival of student prince Fiyero (Norbert Leo Butz), a self-styled bad boy who gets everyone excited about drinking beer and such in the abysmal “Which Way’s the Party?”
But eventually they become best friends, and the selfish and fairly dumb but not entirely uncharitable Glinda vows she will teach her green girlfriend how to be “Popular” — an ode to debutante shallowness that Chenoweth knocks into the comic stratosphere.
Granted a rare audience with the Wonderful Wizard of Oz as this year’s most promising sorcery newcomer, Elphaba takes an equally thrilled Glinda along.
But their delight fades when it becomes clear the Wizard (an amiably bumbling Robert Morse, borrowing Sterling Holloway’s voice) is far from wonderful — in fact, he’s just a powerless figurehead, and one who covets using Elphaba’s maturing powers for dishonest political purposes that will only further hurt the animals’ cause she’s come to plead for.
Appalled, she grabs the Wizard’s book of all-powerful spells; announces, “I’m through with playing by the rules”; and becomes a fugitive to the tune of rote gotta-be-me-dammit “Defying Gravity.”
Act two finds Elphaba a fugitive demonized as the “Wicked Witch of the West” (by Mme. Morrible, no less, now the Wizard’s press secretary), while Glinda and Fiyero have become a celebrity power couple. He’s really in love with the soulful green absentee, however.
Various crises cleverly explain how the Tin Man, Scarecrow, et al., came to be, until at last the offstage captivity of that Kansas brat necessitates a desperate last meeting between the two Oz heroines. Finale is questionably compromised by a “surprise” happy ending that feels like a cop-out afterthought.
It might have worked in a show that whipped up its disparate elements into something less syrupy than “Wicked” does at present. Too many of the songs feel like generic Big Numbers that with minor adjustments could fit into just about any recent musical — the comic I-hate-you-too “What Is This Feeling?,” Celine Dion-worthy love anthem “I’m Not That Girl,” by-the-numbers romantic duet “As Long as You’re Mine,” Elphaba’s mad-as-hell-not-gonna-take-it “No Good Deed (Goes Unpunished).”
Schwartz has certainly written enduring tunes in the past, but here he seems afraid to leave the schlock-poperetta idiom that’s worked in commercial terms for Lloyd Webber, Schonberg and Wildhorn. When he does, as in would-be rouser “Party?” or Morse’s soft-shoe solo “A Sentimental Man,” the results seem out of place, yet no less rote. His lyrics range from the serviceable to the banal, with way too many vapid catchphrases along the lines of “Everyone deserves a chance to fly.”
The book by TV writer Holzman (“My So-Called Life,” “thirtysomething”) features a much higher percentage of bright lines. But too often it traffics in a kind of crude earnestness without depth that drags events earthward.
That choice falls heaviest on Menzel (“Rent’s” original Maureen), whom one can sense chafing within the confines of a “wicked” character who is never allowed to be wicked, ugly or even bitchy — just victimized.
Onstage much less, Chenoweth steals the show whole. She is allowed to be funny and is, spectacularly. Glinda’s princessy ways are priceless, from her rather superfemme body language to the pipsqueak voice that can turn a throwaway line into a show-stopper.
Butz’s hero registers very little on the personality scale, however, and the scenes with Federer’s whining Nessarose add to an overall sense of trim-inviting bloat. These parts could surely use more satirical definition.
The school scenes’ warped Victoriana look is a little too “Harry Potter,” but in general the design contributions are quite pleasing, particularly in the Emerald City scenes, where Wayne Cilento’s choreography also finds room for extra eccentricity. William David Brohn’s orchestrations are on the blowsy side, underlining the score’s own serious case of class conformity.