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It ain't easy being green Actress throws herself into the demanding starring role of green-skinned witch Elphaba in 'Wicked'

When Jackie Burns was cast in the coveted and highly demanding role of Elphaba in the national tour of "Wicked," she got an unexpected bit of advice from the actress she replaced.

"You'll find that you become Elphaba in your real life," said Donna Vivino, who had played the role of the emotionally fragile green-skinned witch for three years before leaving the cast.

"I was like, 'I don't understand.' But now I get it," said Burns, who has been playing the tour-de-force role for nine months. "You become an outcast, not because people are making you an outcast but because you kind of have to be. You kind of just have to do your own thing and be quiet so that you can do the role."

When the show's young cast goes out to drink and unwind after performances in unfamiliar cities across the United States, Burns stays in. During the day, she doesn't talk. Stephen Schwartz's high-soaring songs, which she belts out eight times a week (including five weekend shows), require her to be on vocal rest whenever she's not singing. On her last vacation, in Chicago, she had two beers and got unexpectedly tipsy because her tolerance for alcohol is now almost nil.

"I'm quite a cheap date, which is the only good thing," she joked in a phone interview. "You really become like a nun."

Not that she would have it any other way. Elphaba, the protagonist of "Wicked" and by Burns' reckoning one of the most sought-after roles for women in musical theater, is the driving force of "Wicked." She is the emotionally fragile precursor to the Wicked Witch of the West, the central villain from the beloved 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz," to which the current musical prequel owes the lion's share of its success. The show is based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," which expanded the limited mythology of "Oz" to tell a story about diversity and acceptance in a consciously Victorian style.

"Wicked" returns for a monthlong stand in Shea's Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, its second appearance here, following an immensely popular 2008 run. According to Shea's, that production sold a record 97 percent of its tickets and pulled in $5.7 million in ticket sales in a single month.

For Burns, as for brand-new cast member Amanda Jane Cooper, who plays the irrepressibly perky Glinda, clinching the role is the fulfillment of a long-held dream.

Burns first saw the show on Broadway during its second week of previews in 2003. She had just graduated from college and landed her first job, a gig at a Tokyo Disney in Japan, and her family came to New York to send her off. As a going-away present, they took her to see "Wicked."

"At intermission, I turned to my mother and said, 'I want to play this role someday.' And eight years later, I'm playing it. It's amazing."

The show had a similarly visceral and long-lasting effect on other young women, Broadway aspirants and bookish outcasts alike. Its message -- about bullying, embracing difference, believing in yourself, following your dreams, being kind -- applies to a wide swath of the teen and tween population, a group that makes up a good deal of the show's core audience.

But it's also popular among older generations of musical theater faithful, due largely to Schwartz's songs, primarily Elphaba's high-flying, vocal cord-stretching number "Defying Gravity" and Glinda's petite comic masterpiece, "Popular." The show's epic production elements, with no shortage of flying apparatuses and stage effects, doesn't hurt, either. And neither does its built-in nostalgia value among those whose childhoods were defined in many ways by the 1939 film.

Burns credits the creators of "Wicked" with expanding our understanding of the "Oz" mythology and turning it into something even more universal.

"We have this misconception of the Wicked Witch from the movie, that she was just a terror, and she's the furthest thing from it," Burns said. "She's the biggest activist you'll ever meet, with the biggest heart, and she just has the worst luck. You can't help but root for her throughout the entire show."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

"Wicked" opens on Wednesday and runs through May 22 in Shea's Performing Arts Center 646 Main St. . Tickets are $37.50 to $132.50. For more information, call 800 745-3000 or visit www.sheas.org.

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