This tale-spin about life in Oz, before that rude girl from Kansas crashed the place, is neither quite as profound as its most ardent champions would aver, nor quite as empty as its detractors have charged. But the work’s component parts certainly come together snappily in ways that create entertainment writ large.
“Wicked,” which has been aging nicely on Broadway for nine years and touring almost that long, first visited Baltimore in 2007. The second national tour has settled into the Hippodrome for a month-long residency, giving off remarkably fresh vibes.
Nothing screams “road show” here. Newcomers should find this production a worthy introduction; “Wicked” groupies ought to find plenty here to keep them engaged one more time.
The plot, adapted by Winnie Holzman from the Gregory Maguire novel, presents a back-story for the peculiarly green woman we last saw in a puddle — the Wicked Witch of the West, who tried so darn hard for the return of those jeweled slippers in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”
Various details we accept as gospel from that movie get some interesting twists (better to ... forget what you remember Margaret Hamilton’s iconic witch doing to the Scarecrow). And, like in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” characters are apt to shift between good to evil without warning.
Oz, it turns out, is not entirely Eden-like. The Wizard happily tells his people lies, because “they were lies they wanted to hear.” Prejudice, intolerance, suspicion of the “other,” power-hunger, fast-flying rumor — it’s all happening in or around this emerald-tinted world.
Some of these issues, especially a campaign against talking animals (a chilling classroom scene is fully Third Reich-redolent), could use more depth. But the fast-moving, if opera-length, show stays primarily focused on the emotional journey of the supposedly wicked witch, Elphaba, how and why she moved toward the dark side.
Arriving at Shiz University and promptly scaring everyone with her greenness, Elphaba meets her match —the decidedly blond Glinda, an apparently distant relative of the perky heroine in “Legally Blonde.” It’s a classic set-up of opposites, with no easy path to attraction.
One of the tricky things about “Wicked” is how to keep the Glinda character from tilting the musical her way; she spreads glitter from the get-go and could go on to steal any scene.
The touring production boasts terrific balance and chemistry between the two leads — Christine Dwyer’s sensitive, wry Elphaba and Jeanna de Waal’s iridescent Glinda. Both are nuanced actresses who manage to tap into something genuine about the characters. Their unlikely friendship, the bond that changes both women “for good,” resonates strongly here.
Dwyer doesn’t just nail the glum, glib side of Elphaba, but unleashes the eager little girl beneath. Even in her most theatrical moments, she doesn’t lose a touch of humanness.
De Waal jumps into the bubbly, hair-flinging shtick with elan and delivers her comic lines deliciously. Some of the biggest laughs come from her deft way with physical gestures, like a quick allusion to “Evita” or sudden burst of baton-twirling. But she is just as winning when it is time to reveal the serious side of this bright coin.
The two performers also bring admirable vocal chops to the show. Dwyer’s rich low register gives added weight to her affecting phrasing in “I’m Not That Girl.” When the score calls for the inevitable, tired old ‘Idol-style’ wailing, she rises sturdily to the occasion.
De Waal’s soprano floats securely and sweetly as needed, and she delivers one of the musical’s best-known numbers, “Popular,” with a disarming flourish.
Would that Stephen Schwartz’s score contained a few more items of that cleverness. A lot of the songs are in generic pop mode, spinning their wheels over well-worn harmonic paths and failing to generate a really strong melodic hook.
The supporting cast does uniformly persuasive work. Paul Kreppel makes a disarming Wizard, Gina Ferrall a colorful Madame Morrible. Billy Harrigan Tighe has the fresh, all-Ozian looks and smooth swagger for Fiyero, the man who lights a spark under Elphaba and Glinda.
There are endearing contributions from Michael Wartella as the naive Munchkin Boq and Jay Russell as Doctor Dillamond. And Catherine Charlebois finds some texture in the thinly written character of Elphaba’s sister Nessarose. (UPDATE: Earlier, I inadvertently credited Zarah Mahler here; she takes over the role starting Oct. 12.)
The ensemble exudes personality and executes the choreography nimbly. Conductor Valerie Gebert provides firm guidance from the pit.
Joe Mantello’s imaginative, propulsive direction has been maintained for the tour. Eugene Lee’s sets still exude plenty of visual virtuosity; same for Susan Hilferty’s finely textured costumes. The finishing touch comes from Kenneth Posner’s lighting, a triumph of myriad gradations and stylish angles.
PHOTOS BY JOAN MARCUS