It’s not easy being green, is one thing we learn in this exploration of the Wizard of Oz cozmology. Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, Wicked picks up after the departure of the Wizard from Emerald City, telling the story of how we got to the point where a house would come spinning out of the sky to squash a witch.
The narrative’s focus is on the two famous witches: the ostensibly good one, Glinda, and the Witch You Love to Hate, Elphaba, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West. In Maguire’s version, they go to school together, despise each other, came to love each other, find themselves rivals in a love triangle, and … well, you get the idea.
Arguably, their early school experience is their rockiest time. Elphaba was born green, and thus suffers the fate of the outcast. Glinda is a debutante airhead heiress, thus suffering the fate of popularity. They’re opposites, you see, which creates fertile ground for character conflict, and in this particular case, when conflict makes one of them angry (the green one), sorcery happens.
Elphaba is like the Incredible Hulk. Get her mad and she busts out the magic; the only problem is she never stops being green.
If these are well-worn, even threadbare themes to explore, then consider the larger plot mechanisms of Wicked, wherein the Land of Oz is filled with Nozi-types who seek to repress animals, rob them of speech, cage them and basically create an underclass.
Why they do that is not clearly articulated, but it does make for some easy bad-guy action, which inspires the transformation of Elphaba into the Wicked One. Oh wait, there’s some business about a drought and how the depleted resources causes citizens of Oz to turn on each other, but we don’t see them using animals for plowing the earth or for ending up on their dinner plates.
There are more than few deus oz machina moments in this show, but no matter. Wicked is a very big show about two main things, one grand and one small. The grand one is how easy fear can turn community into the madness of crowds. The small is about friendship; how these two gurrrl-friends can go through everything — and come out on the other side, ready to sacrifice for each other.
Happily, Wicked plays all this light as a green feather, thanks in good part to a brilliant comic performance by Lesley McKinnell in the role of Glinda. With a clarifying, and at times, operatic voice, McKinnell mines her character for a seeming million moments of mirth. Christine Dwyer’s Elphaba is a perfect counterpoint, more ragged and raw and powerful. That these two mesmerizing performers are understudies boggles the mind. Subsequent performances will feature Natalie Daradich as Glinda and Vicki Noon as Elphaba. Let me know how it goes.
Don Amendolia makes for wonderful Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a character I was poised to hate, until he gets to plum his character. That’s the thing about musicals; the whole world can turn in one song. As the Wizard says at one point, referring to his “Wizard of Oz” terrifying, gigantic presentation, and I paraphrase here: “It’s a bit much, but you have to give the people what they expect.”
And so Wicked does. This is a massive show. Prepare to be blown away by singers, dancers and an amazing set. It was all I could to stop myself from stealing on stage to steal one of the hats; the costumes are sublime.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman, musical staging by Wayne Cilento and direction by Joe Mantello. Wicked runs at the Murat through Jan. 1.
And note this: if the $50 price tag is looking a little steep, try your luck in the performance lottery for $25 orchestra seats; just show up two and a half hours before show time, cash in hand, to put your name in the drum; note this lottery deal is only available in-person, with a two-ticket limit; Old National Centre box office