Wicked Still Leaves Us Confused, But So What? It's Beloved.

The Setup: 

It's back!

Gather ye all distaff tweens and proceed as fast as lightning to the Hobby, where the ultimate girl-power musical lumbers, sputters and sometimes manages to amaze.

This most profitable of all Broadway millennium juggernauts is, of course, Wicked (2003), Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman's (book) softer retelling of Gregory Maguire's deconstruction (1995) of L. Frank Baum's beloved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with shameless assist from the iconic MGM movie. The show replaces Maguire's adult sexiness with tamer romance (Elphaba and Fiyero kiss in the fog, but are interrupted in consummating their tryst by the swiftly moving plot at the end of Act II), and punches up the themes of sorority sweetness (opposites attract) and empowerment (unlimited) that make this musical such a young-chick magnet. If this is the show that attracts a young audience who marvel at the magic of live theater, I'm all for it. Too bad the young 'uns don't have a better example.

For while we can all empathize with “outsider” Elphaba with her green skin, comically battling bubble-headed Glinda and her obsession with being popular, the authors play fast and loose with our memories. Willy-nilly, they throw into the cauldron a big swath of animal-rights activism, which would be fine if the monster behind the curtain weren't that dithering hugbug from the Kansas county fair. Professor Marvel is depicted as a nice misunderstood fascist, just a sentimental despot out for absolute power. It's a surprisingly lopsided turn toward the dark side. It's awful to do this to such an indelible character, so fondly etched by Frank Morgan in the movie. Since when did this charming charlatan become H.G. Wells's demented Dr. Moreau, experimenting on animals? This isn't deconstruction; this is demolition. Saving the animals is Elphaba's rationale to take to the sky for retribution. She's the good witch, you see, made wicked only by imperial press releases that turn the citizens against her.

The plot's a mess, a behemoth of disparate ideas – politics, feminism, family dysfunction, physical disabilities, a disquieting reference to date rape, unrequited love – none of them thought out clearly and none resolved with satisfaction. Everybody's got a backstory, which takes Holzman down more yellow brick roads than this ironic satire can navigate. It wants to be family-friendly, politically correct, stage spectacle and hummable.

Wicked is critic-proof. Hardly beyond reproach, the show is now cemented in our consciousness. Wherever it plays on the road, the run is sold out with repeat visitors and countless newbies. It will be with us forever.

The Execution: 

This latest national tour, presented by Broadway at the Hobby, is as faithful a dupe of the Broadway production as possible. There's been no recension, no new director's concept to let us see the show in a new light, nothing new at all. This is photocopy, Wicked set in stone. Everything you remember is here: Eugene Lee's metal dragon reigning over the proscenium with its gizmo-encrusted frame; Susan Hilferty's English panto costumes; Kenneth Posner's laser lighting; Wayne Cilento's tic-like voguing choreography; Joe Mantello's slickly functional direction. But what everyone truly remembers is Elphaba's rafter-shaking Act I closer, “Defying Gravity,” and Glinda's radiantly silly “Popular.”

The ladies in question, Amanda Jane Cooper, as Glinda, and Emily Koch, as Elphaba, former veterans of the Broadway version – still running and packing them in at the Gershwin – are delightful copies of their progenitors, Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. Cooper is appropriately ditsy and operatic; Koch, earnest and a pop belter extraordinaire. They share a lovely rapport, fussy with each other at Shiz University (think Hogwarts), then finding sisterly friendship begrudgingly with boy problems when they go off to see the Wizard. Jake Boyd looks great as egocentric Fiyero and sings even better, lithely gyrating through his party-boy intro “Dancing Through Life,” then crooning with rockstar passion in his duet with Elphaba, “As Long As You're Mine.” The supporting cast is admirably serviceable, which is about the only way to go with such papier-mâché characters: Stuart Zagnit, vaudevillian wizard; Wendy Worthington, gorgon Madame Morrible; Sam Seferian, hapless Munchkin Boq; Megan Masko Haley, vengeful Nessarose; and Chad Jennings, goat professor Dillamond.

If you love the pop-infused tunes of Stephen Schwartz, you will be over the rainbow. His lyrics, however, except for the misty “For Good” and the comic “Popular,” are predictably pedestrian. In the cavernous Hobby, the sound is, as usual, muffled or overamplified, so distinguishing the lyrics is up for grabs anyway, which is probably for Schwartz's good.

The Verdict:

No Wizard of Oz technicolor here, Wicked is dark and rather sour, a palette in green and black. But when Elphaba rises into the sky on her broomstick to wail her anthem “Defying Gravity,” ablaze in light, cape billowing behind her, there's a charge that's positively electric. This is what stage magic is all about. This is live theater at its finest. In Wicked, it only happens once, but it's a whopper.

Wicked continues through August 14 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays,Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit $40-$180.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover