Musicals aren't supposed to make us think; they're just supposed to make us happy. But Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's powerful Wicked, now playing at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, breaks all the rules. The jaw-droppingly marvelous story (based on Gregory Maguire's best-selling novel) explores what made Oz's Wicked Witch of the West so bad. And as the show spins cultural commentary into delightful entertainment, it will make you laugh hard and think harder.
In the terrific opening, Glinda the Good (Kendra Kassebaum) comes flying into Oz on her glittering silver bubble after the Wicked Witch has melted. The happy citizens crowd around their beloved blond leader and ask if it's really true -- was Glinda the Good once friends with the now-deceased Wicked Witch of the West? Glinda hesitates. She doesn't want to disappoint her "Ozians." But she finally launches into a story that's as layered with moral ambiguity as it is with irresistible fun. And soon enough we're moving back through time to the days when Glinda first knew Elphaba the Wicked Witch (Stephanie J. Block) in school.
Here at the beginning, pretty Galinda (as she was known back then) is actually not all that good at heart, while Elphaba is a rare young woman worried about social injustices who takes dutiful care of her ailing sister. Rich and spoiled, Galinda only cares about boys and being popular. Plain and darkly serious, Elphaba just wants to study and save the world. When these two opposites are thrown together as roommates, they discover how much they loathe each other, which they sing about in one of the show's funniest numbers, "What Is This Feeling?" Their relationship is further complicated by the fact that Elphaba is a talented witch, so talented that she becomes a private pupil to the great Madame Morrible (Carol Kane). Galinda seethes with jealousy and plots to humiliate the dark-haired Elphaba in public, but her plan backfires when Elphaba acts bravely in the face of mortification. She doesn't care a whit about what people think. Witnessing Elphaba's girlish nobility changes Galinda. She realizes there's more to life than being popular.
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700.
Through November 13. $30.25-$77.25.
Of course, Elphaba changes too, especially when her talent is brought to the attention of the great Wizard and she's sent to meet him. The Emerald City is not what it seems, and the young, naive Elphaba quickly learns about political corruption and power run amok. It isn't long before she becomes as cynical as anyone in her situation should be. Toward the end of Act II, when the genuinely good-hearted Elphaba sings "No Good Deed" about what happens to people who try to be good in a corrupt world, the effect is chilling, especially in these times.
This is a story about all the shades of gray there are in a seemingly black-and-white world. No one is completely wicked, and no one is altogether good. It's a complex tale that requires more from its performers than big voices and great dance moves. Thankfully, director Joe Mantello, who has created a supremely timed show filled with nuance and extraordinary details, has found a cast that's more than up to the story's many delights.
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Block's Elphaba is a tower of serious strength. She begins the story as a pigtailed schoolgirl, and we get to watch as she slowly develops the quirky Wicked Witch mannerisms that anyone who's seen The Wizard of Oz will recognize: her bony fingers casting spells and her long arms waving in rage. It's Glinda who gives Elphaba her pointy hat and black cape. And as Elphaba acquires her familiar costume pieces and odd gestures, she becomes more and more recognizable as the witch we all grew up hating.
Even more stunning is Kassebaum's Glinda. The good witch starts off life as an oily glad-hander who knows how to work a crowd and get her way. Kassebaum is all that and more. In her wonderful vision, Glinda becomes more than popular -- she's also an idiosyncratic bundle of hysterical twitches that include everything from showing off her ruffled panties every time she gets excited to stomping on the floor like an unruly colt whenever she wants attention. She's more than a spoiled rich girl, she's also an eccentric, wildly original individual who's great fun to watch.
The supporting roles are also filled with fine performers. Kane's Morrible is delightfully horrible. Derrick Williams as Fiyero, the witches' sexy love interest, is all muscled charm. David Garrison is perfect as the Wizard, the epitome of soulless charisma. And the show is a visual delight. Susan Hilferty's costumes and Eugene Lee's set imagine an oddly shaped world full of unexpected stripes and curls and bustled bottoms.
All this comes together in a story so complex and relevant to our current world order, that it makes Wicked the most unforgettably moving musical comedy of this season.