Blond, green and popular: 'Wicked' has aged very well

THEATER REVIEW: "Wicked" at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago ★★★½

So what is a man reviewing "Wicked" for the 9,837th time — give or take a few — going to say? Turn on Elphaba and Glinda after all these years of admiration for their staying power, charm, wit and appeal? How disillogicalifed such an act of betrayalification would be. The Oriental Theatre is these gals' second home. They are welcome back.

So let us focus on that about which you might be curious, oh "Wicked" fan, or person who loves a "Wicked" fan, or person wondering if the next generation of "Wicked" fan might lurk inside your household.

What kind of shape is director Joe Mantello's production in? Excellent. There are very few tours offering compensation to actors at this level in today's touring world, so "Wicked" has plenty of choice. Those in charge know how to cast these roles. It is fun to see John Davidson enjoy himself as the Wizard, and Kim Zimmer is a no-nonsense Morrible and a better singer than most. There has been no meaningful diminishment in the physical production and, frankly, the design's roots in an era just before the digital revolution in scenic technology is one of its primary assets. Eugene Lee's setting holds up remarkably well. With many aging Broadway shows, you weary of the original production and crave a fresh staging. Here, not so much. Not yet anyway. Can't say I am juiced by the notion of some minimalist "Wicked."

How are the current leads? We all have our favorite Elphaba and Glinda. The present pair, Alison Luff and Jenn Gambatese, , have different assets. Luff is lighter on the girlish quirk than some of her predecessors but she's very much in tune with some of the heartbreak of the green girl. That's my kind of Elphaba. Gambatese, who has a raft of Broadway credits, offers the most legit-sounding Glinda you'll likely have heard. She's measured and mature. But the blond can have the heart of a geek and Gambatese's wound-tight quality makes her funny when it matters. These two didn't dissolve in an emotional well of tears as have some of their predecessors during the song "For Good," but then, barely being able to get through the show is all very 2005. This pair is wise to contextualize these characters a little differently. Most of the people in the house have seen these characters before, and many have grown with them. So they should grow too.

Does "Wicked" feel dated? Well, I was struck Friday night not only at the depth of affection Chicago audiences feel for this show, of which they have taken long-term ownership like no other, but also how shrewdly the piece anticipated the social changes of the decade following its stunningly lucrative birth. Its book, by Winnie Holzman, has a funny, conversational, wry, moving quality hat has been much admired but, to date, rarely if ever duplicated. Holzman walked a fine line between irony and emotional sincerity and most of today's young book writers fall off that narrow bridge into the river.

And Stephen Schwartz's score, a proven success, demonstrates how the best scores know just how to blend ballads of introspection, odes to love and friendship and anthems of self-actualization. Certainly, there is nothing in this "Wicked" to bring you over from the other side, if that position was formed long ago, but then this show has done very well without you, especially in Chicago, a town long invested in Oz.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Dec. 21

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $37 to $107 at 880-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

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