Reason of the Witch: Elphaba, right, becomes L. Frank Baums villain, but it was all a misunderstanding. s villain, but it was all a misunderstanding.
Reason of the Witch: Elphaba, right, becomes L. Frank Baums villain, but it was all a misunderstanding. s villain, but it was all a misunderstanding.

The hottest ticket this summer is a show that deals with Big Questions—timelessly debatable topics like the problem of evil, absolute truth, and Rousseau’s theory of innate goodness. You know, Philosophy 101 kinda stuff.

The play? It’s a musical, actually. It’s called Wicked. Throw a bunch of glitter on just about anything, add catchy showtunes, and people will pay money to see a show about it.

But that’s being cynical. Wicked is much more than a pretty opium dream of a backstory to The Wizard of Oz. There’s substantive dramatic tension—and some serious inquiry—going on underneath Elphaba’s black hat and Glinda’s blond curls. The touring production that’s set up shop at the Kennedy Center can’t be pronounced “perfect,” but it’s not too many taps of a wand away.

The 2003 Broadway cast of Wicked starred professional cute blond Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda and her Tony-winning foil, Idina Menzel, as Elphaba. Because the actresses have reunited on Glee, where both compete for the attentions of fellow former Broadway crooner Matthew Morrison, their voices may be a little fresher in some theatergoers’ minds than the last time Wicked came through Washington. And that’s a problem. From the moment she floats in on a hydraulic bubble, Amanda Jane Cooper makes you suspect Chenoweth would be less annoying as she flirts and giggles her way through the cliques of Shiz University. At the very least, Chenoweth would hit the high notes without quavering.

But you never miss Menzel. Dee Roscioli owns the role of Elphaba, the green-skinned outcast majoring in sorcery. Her smooth but expressive mezzo glides easily up to higher ranges, and despite playing the part on Broadway and in Chicago for two years, she sounds fresh and unerringly convincing. When she sings “I’m Not That Girl”—which has replaced Les Miserables’ “On My Own” as this generation’s Broadway ballad of unrequited love—there’s no question Elphaba’s plight is more complicated than the average theatrical love triangle.

As spelled out in the opening song-and-dance sequence, Elphaba will become the Wicked Witch of the West by show’s end. Following some shenanigans at Shiz, a trip to see the Wizard ends with some spells gone wrong. (Flying monkeys, anyone?) Elphaba hops on a broom and goes on the lam, leaving her more popular friend Glinda behind to keep up appearances in Oz and marry Fiyero, captain of the guards. Rumors that Elphaba is a fugitive “wicked” witch are circulated by the Wizard’s press secretary. Cue inside-the-Beltway sniggers. “The truth is not fact or reason,” the Wizard observes. “The truth is just what everyone agrees on.”

But back to Fiyero for a minute. It’s a shame that Colin Hanlon, the charming actor who sings the would-be showstopper “Dancing Through Life,” can’t really sing and really can’t dance. On press night, successive big numbers showed that the tech crew and musicians should attempt a few tweaks. The 20-piece orchestra is pumped through massive speakers in the Opera House, resulting in homogenized accompaniment that sounds less than live. There’s little variance in dynamics, and that detracts from hits like “One Short Day” and “Gravity.”

Stephen Schwartz’s songs succeed not only because they’re catchy, but because they both reveal characters’ thoughts and propel the plot forward. In Glinda and Elphaba’s closing duet—just before a girl named Dorothy bursts in with a bucket—the two witches ask: “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

This idea that “good” does not necessarily equal “better” is a heady line by musical theater standards. The narrative wraps up more neatly onstage than in Gregory Maguire’s novel, but even in an fantasy world of glitter and green tulle, that very human problem of moral ambiguity sparkles though.