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'Wicked' is back at the Kennedy Center with dynamic cast

Sometimes it’s better not to look behind the curtain.

"Wicked," the smash Broadway musical from 2003 that has returned to the Kennedy Center for a long summer run, doesn't exactly have a whole lot of depth underneath the very diverting surface.

Inspired by the popular 1995 Gregory Maguire novel, "Wicked" provides a back story to what may be the best known, best loved of all fantasies, the one that found a Kansan girl whooshed off to Oz, where she was threatened by the Wicked Witch of the West.

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Turns out that the witch, the one Margaret Hamilton played so deliciously in the 1939 film classic "The Wizard of Oz," was named Elphaba and had some severe childhood issues, along with that off-putting green complexion. Glinda, the good witch, once had another 'a' in her name, along with way too much self-esteem.

The two witches developed a yen for the same cute, straw-for-brains guy, a conflict that has something to do with their respective fates. Oh yes, and the Wizard was a prototypical fascist. (Perhaps the musical set out to prove Oscar Wilde's dictum that "wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others." )

Those with firm allegiance to the movie may have the toughest time adjusting to "Wicked"; some things are so ingrained into our beings that any little change is terribly unsettling. But there is undeniable imagination in the musical's plot (Winnie Holzman wrote the often witty book), and the whole thing is dusted with a layer of camp that has its distinct rewards.

Stephen Schwartz's score aims to please, but many of the songs are ...

in the bland pop style that characterizes too many Broadway musicals of late, and his lyrics tend to get much too wordy to be supported by such slender melodic lines.

Issues of morality and repressive government are explored with a heavy-handed touch that doesn't quite fit with the fantastical side of things. Although several themes have a good deal of potency, especially a chilling classroom scene right out of the Third Reich, there is little room left for development, let alone a strong emotional connection.

But if I think it's a bit of a stretch to treat "Wicked" as profound, the way its most ardent fans do, it would also be, well, wicked, to dismiss it as "deeply shallow" (to borrow a wry line from the show).

At the very least, the musical entertains, thanks in large measure to a production that positively drips with green – not just Ozian emerald, but good old-fashioned greenbacks. This is modern stagecraft writ large. In this second national touring production, the original set design (Eugene Lee), costumes (Susan Hilferty) and lighting (Kenneth Posner) still create abundant dazzle. And Joe Mantello's direction continues to have the action unfolding with cinematic fluidity.

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Heading the cast as Elphaba is Dee Roscioli, whose long association with the role on Broadway and elsewhere shows at every turn -- she has performed it more often than anyone else. The actress manages to put sufficient life into a part that doesn't have as much color (the green aside) as you would expect. And Roscioli's rich voice, with a particularly lush low register, is used with great expressive power.

In many ways, Glinda is the central spark of "Wicked." She undergoes the most extensive transformation and accounts for the most infectious humor along the way. Glinda is also a close cousin to the perky, blissfully superficial heroine of "Legally Blonde" (instead of Harvard, Glinda's goal is a sorcery school), and Amanda Jane Cooper makes the most of that kinship with a performance that never runs out of bubbly charm. She gives a particularly effervescent account of "Popular," one of the most creative and satisfying items of Schwartz's score.

Mark Jacoby uses keen acting skills and a subtly shaded voice to animate the role of the Orwellian Wizard; he delivers "Sentimental Man" and "Wonderful," Schwartz's affectionate nods to song-and-dance numbers of yore, with great finesse.

Randy Danson does vivid work as Madame Morrible. Paul Slade Smith is endearing as Doctor Dillamond. Colin Hanlon's Fiyero generates a good deal of spark. Stefanie Brown gets as much mileage as she can from the underwritten part of Elphaba's sister Nessarose. Justin Brill is a charmer as Boq, and the rest of the ensemble adds dynamic punch to the finely polished production.

PHOTO (by Joan Marcus) COURTESY OF THE KENNEDY CENTER

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