We seem to be in the thick of a pop-culture moment fascinated by all things magical and monstrous. From Harry Potter to vampires, even adults have been captivated by spells and superpowers. Wicked, the Broadway smash that nabbed a 2004 Tony nomination for best musical, is another link in this trend.
Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's musical draws on the Gregory Maguire novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire's book was a reimagining of the Oz universe created by L. Frank Baum and known to virtually everyone through the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz.
Wicked is all about backstory, taking familiar characters we think we know and making us -- to paraphrase a tune from the show -- see them with different eyes. The touring production that opened at Overture Center this week is a triumphant start to the arts center's Broadway season. Like The Lion King, Overture's spring hit, Wicked proves that a show can be a commercial hit yet also visually and emotionally rich.
In the lead role of Elphaba, Vicki Noon excels as the green-skinned girl who later becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. At 25, she is a phenomenal talent. Though a powerhouse while singing, she doesn't oversell her acting. Watching her, I could only conclude that having a voice like Noon's come out of your body is a magical power of its own.
For Thursday's performance, the other lead role -- Glinda -- was played with aplomb by understudy Lesley McKinnell, who showed no sign that she's not Glinda every night of the week. While she, too, is a fine singer, I was more captivated by her goofy comic skills, particularly in the first act, when Elphaba and Glinda meet at students at mythical Shiz University.
Though it's a riff on the classic outcast/queen bee clash, the early relationship between Elphaba and Glinda is genuinely funny and emotionally true to young adulthood. (Though everything is writ large in the world of a big-budget musical, one can feel the sensibility of My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman, who wrote Wicked's book, at work.)
There's a wonderful scene in Glinda and Elphaba's dorm room (where Glinda's side of the room is crammed with a rainbow of party shoes and Elphie's has only a typewriter) in which Glinda tries to school her misfit roommate in the art of the perfect hair toss. The musical number "Popular" was perhaps McKinnell's finest moment of the evening.
Yet there's more to Wicked than winsome coming-of-age humor: themes of discrimination and political repression are threaded through the musical, though they're handled simplistically at times. The on-and-off nature of Glinda and Elphaba's friendship also gets a touch convoluted.
Overall, though, Wicked is visually spectacular and instantly likable. The sets and special effects are dazzling, from a mechanized dragon with glowing red eyes positioned above the Overture Hall stage, to the Wizard of Oz's giant, menacing talking mask, to the glittering world of Emerald City.
With steampunk-like elements such as giant gears and clock faces, Eugene Lee's scenic design is sometimes so dense it's hard to know where to look, but that's not a dig. We need to have the sense we've been transported to another reality.
Perhaps Wicked's biggest flaw is that it's hard for the second act to live up to the first; the first has more memorable songs and ends with the defining musical and visual moment, Elphaba hovering over the denizens of Oz as she belts out Wicked's signature hit, "Defying Gravity." (While Kenneth Posner's lighting design is excellent throughout, it's jaw-dropping at this moment.)
With playful language, sly and funny nods to its source material and a knockout cast, Wicked should do well for the Overture Center, and deservedly so.