It’s easy to carp at the excesses and inefficiency of this prequel/backstory to L. Frank Baum’s beloved Oz adventure. Winnie Holzman’s libretto is overstuffed with more plot strands than she can do justice to in the time available, and Stephen Schwartz’s cavalcade of similar-sounding and overorchestrated power ballads is ultimately wearying, however well sung. But the spine of “Wicked” is sisterhood, as the production at the Pantages effectively communicates. And judging by the first-night aud’s alacrity at standing up, show will be sitting down comfortably there for quite a spell.
One of the few tuners ever to boast co-equal starring female roles (there’s “Chicago” and… what else?), “Wicked” is anchored by the on-again, off-again bond between the sensitive but conflicted Witch of the West, Elphaba (Eden Espinosa), and her nemesis or soulmate, depending on where we happen to be in the narrative, Good Witch Glinda (Megan Hilty).
Espinosa is as implacable an Elphaba as “Wicked” has yet employed. She’d do well to modulate her anger in the early scenes at Shiz U., where more wide-eyed eagerness would invest her descent into despair with greater poignancy. But when tricked into creating the Winged Monkeys or betrayed by heartless sibling Nessarose (Jenna Leigh Green), Espinosa’s fury comes from Stanislavskian depths and provides the show with an unusually rich emotional core.
Hilty is a living doll as Glinda, with her apple-cheeked face and pleasingly plump figure complimenting a remarkably plangent soprano. She needs to tone down the self-conscious comedy — she muddies the actor-proof “Popular” with a surfeit of distracting antics and vocal tics. Otherwise, Hilty is adept at navigating the role’s daunting swings from egomania to sensitivity to ditziness and back again.
From their sung, shared “Loathing” as college roommates, through their competition for the heart of feckless, hunky Prince Fiyero (Kristoffer Cusick) to the final wind-beneath-my-wings anthem “For Good,” show shrewdly keeps circling back to the witches’ jockeying for power and self-actualization — the theme of many a Schwartz ballad and the reason for tweener girls’ fanatical attachment to this monster hit.
Wayne Cilento’s choreography is generally serviceable at best, but he can be proudest of the ballroom dance at which Elphaba and Glinda make their first connection. As performed by the two leads, the singularly lovely moment builds with humor and sweetness. Show remains a visual knockout, especially so in this venue.
This production of “Wicked” maintains interest beyond the Elphaba/Glinda plot by virtue of a strong supporting cast. Cusick’s sex appeal and hot dance moves for once justify both the girls’ interest and the love triangle’s central presence. John Rubinstein’s Wizard of Oz could use more menace and Carol Kane’s Madame Morrible greater vocal strength, but each is a fully realized portrayal of the wickedness that can reside behind a friendly smile.
“Wicked’s” secret weapon is its ability to exploit collective memories of Baum and the1939 movie. Whether detailing the alternative-history origins of Dorothy’s friends and iconography like the witch’s pointy hat, or just tossing in passing wordplay (“What’s in the punch?” “Lemons and melons and pears.” “Oh my!”), show constantly invites those in the know — i.e., approximately the entire Western World — to make reasoned connections.
Rare is the tuner that offers spectators any opportunity whatsoever to make use of their minds, but “Wicked” does so numerous times in each of its three hours, a key ingredient in aud involvement. A thinking person’s musical? Who knew?