You don’t really care whether the Washington City Paper thinks Wicked is any good, do you? ’Cause really, either you’re (a) such an Elphaba partisan that you somehow snagged tickets for the three-and-a-half-week Kennedy Center run during the seven-and-a-half minutes they were available or you’re (b) shit out of luck. And bitter about it.
Or maybe you’re (c) thinking, Who’s Elphaba? Right. Well, you’ve met her, probably years ago, at Thanksgiving—only they were calling her the Wicked Witch of the West at the time. Turns out that was the Office of Strategic Information at work: Wicked, the Broadway smash derived from Gregory Maguire’s best-selling 1995 rethink of The Wizard of Oz, reveals its green-skinned heroine to be an impetuous, misunderstood civil libertarian smeared by a demagogue’s homeland-security apparatus. A gawky, rebellious teen with more heart and smarts than most of those around her, the unconventional Elphaba has always been unloved at home, and now she’s scorned by the popular girls at boarding school, too—and yet, because this is a Broadway show, she’s the one who’ll wind up smooching the prince and saving the day. Which is why you can’t get tickets—and why there’s so much pop-fan squealing at the Opera House: Who among us hasn’t fantasized about giving the finger to the cheerleader clique and still riding off with the star quarterback?
The bad news is that for a show whose story trades on confounded expectations—Elphaba turns out to be not quite as water-soluble as the headlines would have it, and Glinda isn’t such a good witch after all—Stephen Schwartz’s slick, pop-inflected, commercial machine of a musical spends a lot of time catering to them: Big, forgettable ballads come and go with the regularity (and the charm) of American Idol contenders, and everything’s overdesigned and overproduced and overamplified until it’s busy and bright and loud enough to arrest the attention of even the multitasking teens in the nosebleeds, busy texting their best friends two seats away about how OMG fabulous! the show is.
The good news—which you still don’t care about, because scalpers are pulling down as much as $500 for a single Saturday-night orchestra ticket, so you’re feeling either smug or seriously annoyed at this point—is that for a slick, pop-inflected, commercial machine of a musical, Wicked can occasionally be wicked good fun. It’s at its best tracking the intermittently adversarial relationship between Stephanie J. Block’s dry-as-irony Elphaba, ugly-duckling daughter of the autocratic governor of Munchkinland, and Kendra Kassebaum’s pretty, perky Glinda, the legally blond roommate Elphaba is assigned at Shiz University. They despise each other on sight, of course—“What Is This Feeling?” goes their first duet, the punch line of which is “loathing”—but after luring her roomie into a classic high-school-dance humiliation, a remorseful Glinda sets out to make amends by turning “Elfie” into her latest project. (One of the show’s two genuinely catchy songs is “Popular,” the loopy little ditty during which Kassebaum’s self-absorbed teen queen pledges to turn her emerald-hued new friend into a social success: “Think of it as personality dialysis,” she sings cheerfully.)
As long as its two leading witches are squaring off or sorting out the terms of their unlikely friendship, Wicked is a giggle. Kassebaum fizzes and percolates her way through the first half of the show, deploying a brand of dingbat charisma powerful enough to alleviate tour-town worries about missing Kristin Chenoweth’s star turn on Broadway. And Block, who apparently developed the part of Elphaba in a workshop production before Rent veteran Idina Menzel got her steel-clad vocal cords around the part in New York, proves a sensitive, engaging actress, capable of both subtle emotional color and a sly, sardonic humor that makes a fine foil for Kassebaum’s caffeinated giddiness. She’s a fine, full-voiced singer, too, bringing more than enough brass and belt for a thoroughly convincing sell of “Defying Gravity,” the airborne Act 1 closer that’s the show’s other big triumph.
There’s more to the production than two first-rate performers and a couple of good songs, of course, but nothing quite as satisfying. Carole Shelley, as the grande-dame headmistress who metamorphoses inexplicably into a kind of weather-working, distaff Karl Rove, and David Garrison, as the easily manipulated chief executive she comes to dominate, are both classy performers with the obvious ease of musical-theater veterans. But their parts give them nothing substantial to work with. Wayne Cilento’s choreography, all swivels and swaggers and poses, can’t decide whether it wants to feel fresh or old-fashioned. So it ends up feeling like a half-baked group improvisation in a modern-dance class. Eugene Lee’s monumental sets have a kind of gloomy wit about them—they’re all dystopian industrialism, with giant cogwheels and clocks and an enormous iron dragon (for whatever reason) framing the stage. But they overpower the action so thoroughly that even the busiest scenes seem to be happening in two dimensions. At least there are Susan Hilferty’s elaborate costumes—fancifully savvy send-ups of everything from Victorian Gothic to fairy-tale glamour to Harry Potter whimsy—and Kenneth Posner’s expressive lighting, which works unobtrusively when it should and steps triumphantly to the fore when Elphaba takes to her broom.
Amid all the spectacle, the plot, with its clumsy efforts at political allegory, gets a little lost. That’s partly because writer Winnie Holzman hasn’t made all the connections she might have between Elphaba’s outsider childhood and her urge to right the wrongs of Oz’s dispossessed. (The talking animals are being herded up and taken off to Guantánamo, or something like that, and Elphaba’s efforts at loyal opposition are what get her branded an outlaw by the administration.) And it’s partly because Wicked constantly wants to have it both ways: It wants to traffic in sprightly comedy and in portentous drama, in righteous indignation and in camp—sometimes in practically the same breath. (After an early bit of melodramatic bombast flashing back to the birth of an infant who’ll face many a hurdle, being green, Glinda chirps: “So you see, it couldn’t have been easy.”) Holzman’s book is funny enough when it’s trying to be funny, far too shallow when it’s trying to be deep, and nowhere near nimble enough to negotiate all the hairpin turns between.
Not that any of that matters too much. Because Wicked, as many a news item has noted, is a juggernaut of a show, critic-proof and awash in box-office takings and thoroughly unashamed of the excesses that make ’em possible. And either you have your tickets already and you’re damned if I’m going to ruin your fun, or you quit reading somewhere near “homeland-security.” So really, my work is done here.CP