Wicked Good

Because of the wonderful things she does, Stephanie J. Block makes Wicked a magical ride. Same goes for Kendra Kassebaum, David Garrison, Carol Kane, Paul Slade Smith, Jenna Leigh Green, Logan Lipton, Derrick Williams and the rest of the marvelous cast of Munchkins and winged monkeys in the musical prequel-sequel based on L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz. Wicked is the best Broadway tour to hit the Music Hall at Fair Park this century. It may be the best and biggest musical staged there ever.

Spectacular shows like this don't blow over our way often enough. They certainly didn't this summer. The triumphant Wicked closes out what had been a weak season for the Dallas Summer Musicals. It's so good it almost erases the painful memories of Movin' Out and Disney's On the Record.

Wicked arrives with all the bells and whistles of the Broadway version intact. The scenery by Eugene Lee is a whirring, wheeling, fire-breathing leviathan that never stops moving, each set more visually stunning than the last. Lighting by Kenneth Posner has a three-dimensional texture as it plays against the scenery and costumes. And those costumes--designer Susan Hilferty combines Dr. Seuss' touches of whimsy with Tim Burton's bold colors and creepy cuteness in the hundreds of multi-layered pieces worn by the citizens of Oz.

It looks like the Broadway hit in every detail, but this production goes the original production at least two better in the casting. The leading ladies in this Wicked sing and act big yellow-brick circles around Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, the dueling divas who starred in New York. And they have real chemistry, Block playing the dark sorceress against Kassebaum's sugary goodness.

Block is Elphaba, the green-skinned young witch from the west side of Oz who starts out shy and hopeful and then has "wickedness thrust upon her" when she becomes a social outcast. Block makes her first entrance as Elphaba about 15 minutes into Act 1 and proceeds to stop the show with her very first number, "The Wizard and I." It's the "wish song" you hear in every musical, the song in which the heroine expresses her romanticized hopes for the future. Elphaba, like Dorothy (whom we see only briefly and in silhouette late in the action), dreams of a trip to the Emerald City and an audience with the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. "The Wizard and I" is supposed to get the audience on Elphaba's side. That takes, oh, about two bars. It's when Block opens up on the big notes and the sheer power of her voice sends a lightning-bolt jolt of excitement through the theater all the way to the top balcony that we know we're witnessing something special. This woman is amazing. Thrilling. And that's just her first song.

As Glinda, the good witch who floats in on a bubble (just like the movie, only better), Kassebaum is a delicious match for Block, vocally and physically (on Broadway the statuesque Menzel towered over Munchkin-sized Chenoweth). Kassebaum proves herself a genius at physical comedy and works her voice to trill like an opera star or growl like a burlesque floozy. From the neck up, with bouncy blond curls cascading around her little round face, she's a Kewpie doll. Neck down, she shakes and shimmies nonstop, a flirty coquette with ants in her ruffled pink pants.

Attempting a makeover on Elphaba in the song "Popular," Kassebaum's hilarious and full of unexpected gestures and sly double-takes. Then in the seemingly cheerful "Thank Goodness," as Glinda sings of happiness and perfect outcomes, the actress gives her character a heartbreaking catch in her voice and just a hint of tears in her eyes. This Glinda knows her happy ending is about to be derailed by her nemesis, but she smiles through her pain. Brilliant all the way around.

The rest of the huge cast is every lick as fine as the two female leads. David Garrison (the nerdy neighbor Steve on Married...with Children) makes a whiz of a Wiz. He plays him as an old school song-and-dance man, with just a touch of larceny. Carol Kane (some of us remember her best as Andy Kaufman's girlfriend on the sitcom Taxi) seems to be channeling Hermione Gingold in her role as the witches' sorcery teacher, Madame Morrible. Tiny though she is, she can really roar when she needs to.

As Nessarose, Elphaba's handicapped sister who becomes the Wicked Witch of the East (the one Dorothy's house falls on), Jenna Leigh Green evolves from small and meek to loud and terrifying. Paul Slade Smith is strong in several roles, particularly as the Wicked Witches' father. Logan Lipton brings great range to Boq, a Munchkin servant madly and disastrously in love with Glinda. Think which character in Oz most needs a new heart and you'll know what happens to him.

Familiarity with the 1939 movie of The Wizard of Oz is crucial to understanding all the in-jokes in Wicked, which was adapted for the stage by composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell) and TV writer Winnie Holzman (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life) from the 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. The book explores the back stories of Glinda and Elphaba (so named for the three initials of Oz's original author) and how they came to be enemies. It also explains the circumstances that begat the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. The musical takes it for granted that everybody knows the film backward and forward, word for word.

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.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner