After a three-year absence, the motley residents of Oz have made their way back to Shea's Performing Arts Center, where a four-week run of "Wicked" opened to a rapturous crowd Wednesday night.
As shrewdly engineered musical theater phenomena go, the shock-and-awe spectacle of "Wicked" is a special case. Like "Rent" before it, "Wicked" inserted its hooks -- musical, visual and otherwise -- into its core audience early and inextricably. Unlike "Rent," that audience included many grade-schoolers, as well as young adults and boomers who remember wistfully the 1939 film out of which the musical's twisted thicket of moralistic mythology grew.
In that way, this musical's formula of spectacle mixed with soaring pop melodies and a lesson in morality that clobbers audiences over the head at every turn, is designed more than anything for the middle school set. And that is much to its credit. As an entry-level musical responsible for ushering legions of new fans into the Emerald City of musical theater, "Wicked" does its job well enough -- though not as well, believe it or not, as a piece like "Shrek the Musical."
It's when you make the perhaps ill-advised move of putting "Wicked" up against the great 20th century musicals that you start running into trouble.
The story, which takes us through the backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West and her rivalry-turned-friendship with Glinda the Good, is a sort of spirited musical lecture on the importance of accepting difference and being ever-vigilant about those who would stamp it out. That lesson is refracted through the personal journey of the green-skinned Elphaba and her attempt to find acceptance. It is further amplified through the larger matter of the Oz-wide persecution of talking animals, sanctioned much to Elphaba's disgust by the leader of Oz himself. "There are precious few at ease/with moral ambiguities," he sings in his mini-roman a clef, and that's the core idea of "Wicked," which wants us to view the world not in black and white, but in various Technicolor shades of green.
If "Wicked" seems more than a mite preachy, it's worth remembering that some of our best musicals -- "South Pacific" comes immediately to mind -- are guilty of taking to the pulpit.
Here's what "Wicked" has going for it: Because of its immense popularity, the show tends to attract incredible talent, in this case the thoroughly engaging and emotionally sophisticated performances of Jackie Burns as Elphaba and Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda along with a fine performance from Randy Danson as the nefarious Madame Morrible. The structure of the plot itself, in the ways it intersects with the "Oz" story and adds depth to those beloved characters, is masterful. And, yes, the design of the production, from Eugene Lee's quasi-industrial Victorian set to whimsical costumes by Susan Hilferty, is eye-candy of the highest sugar content imaginable.
Here's what "Wicked" doesn't have going for it: Stephen Schwartz.
Aside from Glinda's little comic masterpiece, "Popular," and a pair of vaudevillian pastiches performed by the Wizard, this show contains some of the most egregiously overwrought music and tepid lyrics of any Broadway production of the past decade. The main offender is Elphaba's "The Wizard and I," which, in addition to its repetitive nature and absurd length, cheapens and exploits the emotional buildup and release we get from a key change so many times it approaches bathos. And though "Wicked" fanatics would no doubt like to string me up like the Scarecrow for saying it, Elphaba's tour-de-force number "Defying Gravity" is guilty of some of the same sins.
But if you can get past Schwartz's shallow musical fireworks, delivered with dutiful force and vitality by an impressive cast, you'll be able to glimpse into this musical's genuine heart.
4 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through May 22
WHERE: Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
TICKETS: $37.50 to $132.50
INFO: 800-745-3000 or www.sheas.org