The psychologically complex shift of the Wicked Witch of the West from horror figure to heroine works well in Stephen Schwartz’s crowd-pleasing musicalization of Gregory Maguire’s Oz prequel, and Stephanie J. Block gives this touring Broadway bonanza a strongly human spine. Schwartz’s songs, vastly underrated when “Wicked” opened, come in a lilting collage of styles, supplying ample amounts of singable melody and rhythmic energy.
The show gets rolling with a buoyant introduction to Glinda, the Good Witch (Kendra Kassebaum), singing a song with citizens of Oz that celebrates the death of wicked witch Elphaba (Block), “No One Mourns the Wicked.”
Director Joe Mantello offers up fantasy ingredients that will appeal to families — flying monkeys, a gigantic dragon head with flashing eyes and snippets of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the yellow-brick road. “Wicked” more than fulfills the expectations of a crowd craving for spectacle. Strip these all away, and what makes the musical special is that old, dependable standby — the buddy story — and singing by Block that turns the show into a thrilling experience.
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Playwright-adapter Winnie Holzman flashes back to Elphaba’s birth, her parents’ disgust when she turns out to be “a froggy, ferny cabbage … unnaturally green,” and her later years at Shiz U. Elphaba’s job there is to watch out for her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Jenna Leigh Green) while coping with contempt from fellow students and particularly Glinda’s patronizing cruelty.
The best part of “Wicked” is its establishment of a growing connection between Elphaba and Glinda. A firmly written first act builds their closeness through the production’s most irresistible tune, “Popular,” in which Glinda takes outcast Elphaba under her wing. Equally appealing is Block’s version of “I’m Not That Girl,” a touching tune of hopeless love about Fiyero (Derrick Williams), a rake with a “scandalacious” reputation.
Choreographer Wayne Cilento provides a vigorous pulse without supplying a show-stopping dance, and Susan Hilferty’s opulent, Tony-winning costumes have a bizarrely ornate Dickensian tone.
Among Eugene Lee’s impressive visuals is an emerald set employed during “One Short Day” that features an image echoing the base of the Eiffel Tower, integrating a backdrop radiating spokes with a myriad of lights that make it appear like a Ferris wheel at a magical amusement park.
A forest of plot elements from Maguire’s book have been chopped and whittled down to manageable size, including a dastardly scheme by the Wizard (David Garrison) to silence animals — a plot represented by goat Dr. Dillamond (Timothy Britten Parker), the sole animal instructor at Shiz. This conflict is needed to spur Elphaba’s battle to restore animal rights, but it tends to distract from the main storyline and rarely creates suspense.
Same with the triangle that develops between Elphaba and Glinda for Fiyero’s affections. Williams sings impressively during his duet with Elphaba, “As Long as You’re Mine,” yet he doesn’t give off the necessary romantic heat, either when adoring Elphaba or rejecting the pouty, petulant Glinda.
Kassebaum sings with perfect purity in a style more operatic than that of her celebrated Broadway predecessor Kristin Chenoweth, and her Glinda is a cutely calculating, believable snob, her flouncy Cinderella dresses furnishing effective cover for the nastier instincts underneath. She’s an ideal cartoon heroine, although her character — despite a clearly written arc from snobbish schoolgirl to leader — doesn’t attain satisfyingly powerful stature at the end.
Block, however, has that stature every second she’s onstage. Unlike the other protagonists, she pulls free of the fairy-tale mold and conveys her feelings with depth. She contributes a breathtaking rendition of “No Good Deed,” and her first-act closer, “Defying Gravity,” a duet with Kassebaum, is an electrifying highlight that provides emotional elevation while lifting her up through smoke and Kenneth Posner’s ethereal shafts of light.
As Madame Morrible, headmistress of Shiz and the first person to recognize Elphaba’s sorcery talent, Carol Kane offers playfully broad and entertaining moments. Garrison’s Wizard, too nice to be a genuinely bad guy, is appropriately unctuous on “Sentimental Man” and does a vigorous vaudeville turn with “Wonderful.” Also engaging is Logan Lipton as Boq, a munchkin who loves Glinda and finds himself imprisoned by Elphaba’s possessive sister.