By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Wicked opens at the moment in the Wicked Witch's castle just after Dorothy has doused the crone with a pail of water and melted her into a pool of goo. The plot then flashes back to the birth of Elphaba. The wife of the Governor of Munchkinland has had an affair with a mysterious traveling salesman and produced a baby the color of lime Jell-O. The Gov sends Elphaba away. She and Galinda (later shortened to Glinda) meet as roommates at college. Loathing each other on sight, they vie for the attentions of the laziest but handsomest man on campus, Fiyero (Williams). When Elphaba is rejected, she expresses her rage with some fiery black magic. Her soaring Act 1 closer, "Defying Gravity," just begins to hint at the tricks she's capable of later on.
Even if you're loyal to the Judy Garland version, there are plenty of satisfying surprises and plot turns to savor in this re-imagined take on Oz. By the end of the show, Glinda's goodness turns out to be more than just skin-deep. And Elphaba--well, she has an evil streak but she's also a bit of a freedom fighter, working on behalf of Oz's oppressed minorities: the Munchkins (being enslaved by the Wizard); the flying monkeys (forced to work as spies); and the intelligent talking animals who used to be part of Oz's general society but are forced by the Wizard to live in cages.
When it opened on Broadway in 2003, Wicked was anything but the critics' darling. Chenoweth's Betty Boop-y Glinda drew raves, but the show was dismissed as commercial claptrap that was "overproduced" and "arch." Reviewers found the jokes lame and the songs generic. They harped at the heavy-handed messages about fascism and intolerance. But the star power of the leads prevailed, and the public bought tickets anyway. Even without Chenoweth and Menzel in the cast anymore, Wicked still outsells the more recent hits Spamalot and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The original cast recording recently went gold, a rarity for a Broadway show CD these days.
Some rare alignment of planets has brought us a Wicked that outshines them all. Director Joe Mantello finally gets his perfect pair of witches, and we get to see a work of musical theater filled with more heart, brains, courage and show-stopping performances than any 10 other musicals that have rolled through Fair Park in recent years. Click your heels three times and get over there to see it. You never know when a storm will brew up and the spell will be broken.