REVIEW

WHAT: "Wicked"

WHEN: Through April 24

WHERE: The Canon Theatre, 244 Victoria St., Toronto, Ont.

TICKETS: Limited number of $25 (Canadian funds) tickets are available the day of the performance

INFO: (800) 461-3333

It takes an awful lot of chutzpah to mess with one of the world's most beloved stories. But if Dorothy knew even an ounce of what happened in Oz before she unexpectedly dropped in on Munchkinland and killed the Wicked Witch of the West's sister, maybe she wouldn't mind the revisions.

"Wicked," one of the biggest and brightest musicals to hit Broadway in recent years, is a bona fide hit, thanks in large part to its overwhelming heart, courage and brains -- something Dorothy's pals knew a thing or two about.

The launch of the first tour, now on stage in Toronto through April 24, proves once and for all that children needn't be played down to -- nor their parents ignored -- in order for family entertainment to take wing. And boy, does "Wicked" soar.

The musical, written by "Pippin" and "Godspell" composer Stephen Schwartz, takes the classic "Wizard of Oz" outline and suggests a prequel to the Ozian tale we've known since childhood, specifically the relationship between Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda the Good Witch.

Stephanie J. Block and Kendra Kassebaum are Elphaba and Glinda, respectively, a couple of young witches-in-training at Shiz University, a sort of Ivy League school of wizardry. Elphaba, who was born completely green, is a steadfast liberal sent to Shiz as caretaker of her wheelchair-using sister Nessarose. That is, until her unexplainable powers alert the administration of her untapped potential and makes her the castigated talk of the campus.

But while Elphaba is busy learning spells and campaigning for the free rights of the city's talking animals (this is Oz, after all, home of Munchkins and flying houses), Glinda is busy being what she knows best: a popular, beautiful, platinum blond goody-two-shoes. Like Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde," Glinda knows that her way to a man's heart needn't be through brains or knowledge, two traits that seem to have worked for roommate Elphaba; it can also be with beauty.

It's the challenge that comes with being different that fuels Elphaba's social agenda. Her powers may take more might than Glinda's cutesy wave of her wand, but her intentions are equally positive. In being inherently good -- not at all wicked like her moniker has always suggested -- Elphaba is more like the Misunderstood Witch of the West.

This twist of the age-old good vs. evil relationship is just one of the many triumphs of the show's redeeming lessons. "Wicked," based on Gregory Maguire's popular novel, teaches young and old that it takes a lot to call someone truly wicked or evil. Most of the time, as Elphaba and her love interest, Fiyero (Derrick Williams), discover, it's a matter of perspective.

For once, family entertainment that goes beyond the temporary enjoyment family films feel burdened to give parents. This musical is truly for all ages. Children cheer for the misconstrued Elphaba, seeing their own differences in hers, while parents have no choice but to read into the not-so-subtle political allegory of evil and good. Even terrorism, the proverbial elephant in the room, is brushed upon, albeit lightly.

All of this, not to mention the punch in the face Elphaba's green skin is to those who believe racism is a problem of the past. Anyone who is different -- which is, incidentally, everyone -- will find themselves in these witches' shoes, and what powerful shoes they are.

"Wicked" is also a triumph of some wonderful stagecraft wizardry. Director Joe Mantello, who scored big nods on Broadway recently with Stephen Sondheim's subversively adult "Assassins," breathes exuberant life into this new Land of Oz. Winnie Holzman's dialogue is often humorously sharp and contemporary, adding bite to Schwartz's typically old-school show tunes. And design veteran Eugene Lee's sets are a sight unto themselves. Even without anything to listen or pay attention to, you'd be enthralled just from watching.

Block, who was part of the show's 2003 pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco, is fierce and commanding as Elphaba, pitching the highest of high notes with bravery and tenacity, notably in the first act finale, "Defying Gravity." Kassebaum brings a slight Southern charm to Glinda, flashing her girlish allure more casually than Broadway originator Kristen Chenoweth. Despite their differences in style and approach, both characters are strong women with good heads on their shoulders and with fine voices to boot.

Between the two witches, a dynamic that's sure to become a Broadway fixture has been set in stone. A new memory, hopefully, for today's young audiences to hold near and dear to their hearts alongside Dorothy and her shiny ruby slippers.

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