Which witch is wicked?

WICKED * Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz * Book by Winnie Holzman * Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire * Directed by Joe Mantello * Starring Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, and Joel Grey * Gershwin Theatre, New York City.

Wicked is that rarity, a Broadway musical with intellectual substance -- even if it comes disguised as a fairy-tale entertainment that pays satirical homage to The Wizard of Oz. Like the book by gay novelist Gregory Maguire on which it is based, the show gives the VH1: Behind the Scenes treatment to the Wicked Witch of the West, going back to the beginning and filling us in on everything that happened to her before she crossed yellow-brick paths with a little girl from Kansas played by Judy Garland. 

In this version, the WWW begins life as a freak named Elphaba. (Idina Menzel). She’s born green and suffers all the childhood agonies of being different, which instills in her a natural affinity for the underdog. In college she’s thrown into rooming with Galinda (Kristin Chenoweth), a rich would-be sorceror bristling with blonde ambition whom other kids revere as automatically as they reject Elphaba. Almost despite themselves, these two rub off on each other. Elphaba gains some of Galinda’s self-confidence, especially regarding her magic powers, and Galinda finds herself doing good deeds, in her own way. The animals of Oz are being stripped of their rights, and when a goat professor is barred from teaching anymore, Galinda registers her protest by sacrificing the "a" in her name. When Elphaba’s powers bring her to the attention of the Wizard (Joel Grey), she’s thrilled, thinking they can join forces to reverse threats to freedom. But her discovery that he’s a powerless fraud exerting social control through fatuous happy talk makes her dangerous, and the campaign to brand her as wicked spreads faster than you can say "Karl Rove."

It’s a trippy experience to watch a musical comedy that invites your brain to stay busy translating the subtext. Wicked does actually function as a mythological treatise about the perils of turning the polarities of human nature (good and evil) into opposites (good or evil). It‘s also a post-9/11 political fable that asks: when we’re looking at what They want us to look at, what are we ignoring that They want us to ignore? Thematically, you could say it’s Into the Woods meets Wag the Dog.

Meanwhile, director Joe Mantello puts on a visually dazzling and imaginative show. Stephen Schwartz’s score is musically undistinguished but dramatically effective and Winnie Holzman’s book takes many sharp, funny turns. Idina Menzel is a powerful Elphaba -- imagine Tori Amos as Thoroughly Green Millie -- but Kristin Chenoweth can’t help stealing the show with a postmodern Glinda who borrows heavily and enjoyably from Will and Grace’s Karen. From the moment she appears in a high-tech bubble and coos, "It’s good to see me, isn’t it?" she perfectly embodies the picture-pointing-to-the-frame perspective of this weird, smart musical that’s definitely worth seeing.

The Advocate, December 9, 2003