Bewitched and Bothered, Too / Bewildering 'Wicked' tries to be both dark and cute; so witch is it?

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Somewhere - over the rainbow, under the rainbow, or

rainbow not included with purchase - there lurks the heart of a smart, lovable,

bitter and sweet musical called "Wicked." In fact, if you click your ruby

slippers together, or at least concentrate harder than should be required at a

$14-million Broadway family confection, you should be able to locate the soul

of this much-anticipated Oz prequel in the overproduced, overblown, confusingly

dark and laboriously ambitious jumble that opened last night in the impossibly

cavernous Gershwin Theatre.

Hint: keep your eye on the witches. These wonderful girls from Oz - Idina

Menzel as the Wicked Witch and Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda the Good - are the

delight in the long evening and the best reason for the show. Somewhere along

the road from a reportedly promising tryout in San Francisco last spring,

however, the creative team appears to have lost sight of the primacy of the

witches' story over the spectacle.

And what a spectacle this is. The musical, based on Gregory Maguire's

popular 1995 novel about Oz before Dorothy blew in, has much of the cold,

heavy, metallic, Industrial Revolution nightmare look that Eugene Lee created

for the original "Sweeney Todd." An enormous mechanical dragon lurks at the top

of the proscenium, and the stage is dominated by wheels, gears and widgets

that suggest the workings of a clock. The script makes the occasional reference

to a "clock of the time dragon," which may mean something to scholars of the

source material. Mere theatergoers might just think the set is dark, cluttered

and none too pretty.

Of course, we understand that "Wicked" is not just about pretty. At least,

Joe Mantello, a gifted director who seems overpowered by his first big musical,

lets us think we understand. Winnie Holzman, who wrote for TV's girl-sensitive

"My So-Called Life," has a keen sense of the complexities of friendship among

teens, who happen to grow up to be witches we all know. This is lovely. But the

story is also meant to be a political morality play about a place of bigotry

against girls born green, oppression of Munchkins and, most incoherently, a

plot to cage all animals and stifle their ability to speak.

Really, we are all for content over fluffball. Who wouldn't love a

sorceress who, to liberate animals, gives up her privilege? Unfortunately the

political messages are at war with the cupcake cuteness and, worse, the

motivations for the evil Wizard's plots are almost impossible to understand.

That sly pro, Joel Grey, as the Wizard, does blossom toward the end in an

all-out vaudevillian number about moral ambiguity - "a man's called a traitor,

or liberator; a rich man's a thief, or philanthropist; is one a crusader, or

ruthless invader?"

Stephen Schwartz, responsible for such high-sap hits as "Godspell" and

"Pippin," has written an uneven but ambitious score. There are Sondheimesque

numbers that have more than a passing suggestion of "Into the Woods," and these

don't coexist well with the bushel of creamy generic

scream-it-to-the-second-balcony pop ballads.

Perhaps, if the theater were not such a stadium and the amplification

weren't smearing the words, we might have had a better chance to get the point.

Did someone say "confusifying"? Let's get to the good news. Chenoweth,

Broadway's favorite twisted Kewpie doll, is even more expertly dark and

adorable as Glinda, who mangles the language until the jokes rub dry. She

begins as a spoiled princess and actually learns to be good. She floats into

her first entrance, not on a bubble, but on a hard metal contraption. She is a

twinkling contradiction of self-regard and subtext, teaching the green witch

how to flip her hair and chirping her songs like a demented operetta diva. She

does a mean baton twirl with her wand and her Evita bit for the masses is

inspired.

But the news is Menzel, who was reportedly obscured by Chenoweth's sparkle

in San Francisco. No problem now. The actress, who created the role of Maureen

the performance artist in "Rent," makes a radiant soulful idealist as Elphaba,

the born-green child, a political martyr whose fate is to be the Wicked Witch.

Elphaba's formidable presence contrasts wittily with the tiny Glinda, just as

Menzel's pungent rock-belter voice contrasts with Chenoweth's dainty-belting

soprano.

Elphaba is an outcast, the caregiver to her favored but crippled sister

(Michelle Federer). Her green skin also comes with magical gifts, which makes

her the unexpected star pupil at the sorcery school - and this was before Harry

Potter. Carol Shelley is blissfully nasty as the headmistress. Norbert Leo

Butz makes the switch from vacant pretty boy to revolutionary with charm, and

William Youmans is deeply touching as the professor goat who is tortured into

giving up his voice.

The running-gag evolution of Glinda's name is a bore, but there is great

fun in learning where the black hat came from, why the monkeys fly, why the Tin

Woodsman has no heart, etc., and why the so-called Wicked Witch is so

determined to get those ruby slippers. We never see Dorothy, but there is an

amusing glimpse of the yellow brick road - along with the sad sense of loss

about roads not taken here.

BROADWAY REVIEW

WICKED. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman. Directed

by Joe Mantello, with musical staging by Wayne Cilento, sets by Eugene Lee,

costumes by Susan Hilferty, lights by Kenneth Posner, music direction by

Stephen Oremus. Gershwin Theatre, 51st Street west of Broadway. Seen at

Tuesday's preview.

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