The set-up: With all the aerial modes of transportation on display in Stephen Schwartz's (and book writer Winnie Holtzman's) megahit musical Wicked - winged monkeys, broomstick, tornado, fairground balloon, and bubble - you'd think this theatrical juggernaut from 2003, the fourth incarnation to visit Houston via Gexa on Broadway, would have learned how to fly.
But like an unwieldy zeppelin, the show lumbers along, only dragged intermittently into fresh air by the sorcery of Hayley Podschun as Glinda. Channeling the original necromancy of Kristin Chenoweth, Podshun adds her own brand of bubblelicious charm to Munchkinland's legally blonde witch, which lifts this heavy, over-produced musical into the heavens. Whenever she's on stage, the musical floats high and light; when she's off stage, this gigantic, misguided dirigible collapses as if hit by lightning.
The execution: Based very loosely upon Gregory Maguire's adult "prequel" to L. Frank Baum's classic series of children's books, this Broadway adaptation owes whatever magic it possesses to the long-ago, golden age wizards of MGM. Wicked's creators should be on their knees in thanks, because without the cinematic references to characters, costume and set design, even lines of dialogue, this show would be nowhere.
The writers should be slapped with a lawsuit for what they've done to the Wizard himself, so peerlessly etched in the movie by veteran actor Frank Morgan. It's just obscene to turn the beloved, befuddled country fair humbug into some sort of mad scientist who experiments on animals. What were they thinking? Like everything else in the musical, Schwartz & Co. want to have it both ways. Please love him, they plead, just don't look behind the curtain to see what we've done to him. They give him an old-time vaudeville routine ("Wonderful") to soften him, but it's too late to save him. They make him intentionally wicked, and that's unforgivable. Walker Jones sleepwalks through the role anyway, so if you're expecting Morgan-like sweetness you're in for a shock.
The musical can't make up its mind what it wants to be. Themes plod in and out, while characters change motivation almost mid-scene. Is this a musical about the power of sisterhood? About being different? About being kind to animals? Or is it just the old Broadway plot of the odd girl finally getting the hunk? There's no cohesive message; it's about anything. The show drifts, using our memories of the movie to give it momentum and heft.
And has there been a bigger, more successful musical in the last two decades with a score of less distinction? Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, lyrics for Disney's Pocahontas and Dreamworks' Prince of Egypt) supplies enough anthems for an entire season of American Idol, but except for Glinda's comic "Popular" and a heartfelt duet for Glinda and Elphaba (Jennifer DiNoia), "For Good," the pop numbers come and go without touching us in the least. There's no charm in the music. Even the power ballad "Defying Gravity," which ends the long first act with blasts of stratospheric singing and blinding light cues as Elphaba ascends on her broomstick to become the Wicked Witch of the West, is surprisingly forgettable. It's the slickness of the staging we remember at intermission.
The production is rich and eye-popping, no question about it, with Eugene Lee's Tony-winning set designs and Susan Hilferty's award-winning costumes traveling well on the road. However, Wayne Cilento's stiff choreography doesn't travel at all. Has there ever been such a blockbuster with less exhilarating dancing? Or less fun? What a ponderous musical.
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Except for Podschun's delightful rendition of Glinda, no one seems to be having a good time. There's no glee on stage. The cast is competent, but seems to be marking time until this run is over. Jennifer DiNoia has played Elphaba in previous productions and brings a powerful set of lungs to the proceedings. She has her character's righteous indignation down and is a beautiful shade of emerald, but there's nothing else for her to play, and she's overshadowed by Podschum's effortless effervescence. David Nathan Perlow is a handsome Fiyero, all exterior and ringing tenor. Kathy Fitzgerald, as Madame Morrible, headmistress of magic school Shiz University, lurks about like Miss Hannigan from Annie, barking orders and being officious. Jenny Fellner, as Nessarose, Elphaba's sister, who will be the target of Dorothy's wayward house, and Alex Wyse, as Munchkin Boq, are so unnecessary and drably written that I've already forgotten them.
The verdict: The show, immensely popular and still selling out on Broadway as well as in every city it tours, is impervious to criticism. Ten years down the road, it has lost none of its power to beguile and will probably be around fifty years from now packing the house. This is family entertainment with a vengeance, and it's heartening to see young ones in the audience so thrilled by live theater. But I think they marvel at the quantity, not the quality. The message of the green outsider being true to herself, no matter the consequences, deeply resonates with the young, although the writers fuzzy up her motivation and shoehorn her turn to the dark side into a public relations ploy by the Oz powers-that-be. The show is needlessly complicated yet so superficial.
Judy and her indelible friends on the yellow brick road cast a mighty spell. Looking over their shoulder, Wicked's writers attempt to bring the backstory to life, but trip over themselves and muddy up our nostalgia. They've created a monster, a huge cash cow, but one without much courage, heart, or brains.
The Broadway behemoth about Oz lumbers through August 11 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com/Houston or call 800-982-2787. $44-$174.