'Wicked' returns to the Hippodrome

She emerged from the womb "like a froggy, ferny cabbage." Some folks never did get over the shock of seeing the artichoke-colored baby, who grew up to be a fearsome threat to a girl from Kansas ... and her little dog, too.

That green-skinned character known for generations only as the Wicked Witch of the West, thanks to the indelible 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz," turns out to have a name — Elphaba — and an eventful back story.

How this witch ended up so witch-y is the subject of the multiple Tony Award-winning musical "Wicked," which "takes one of the iconic villains of our culture and turns it on its ear," said Marc Platt, the show's Pikesville-born producer.

The blockbuster opened on Broadway nine years ago this month and has since generated two national tours. The first played Baltimore in 2007; the second rolled into town this week for a monthlong residency at the Hippodrome. Productions have also reached countries on multiple continents over the years.

"When something becomes a phenomenon, it's hard to articulate why," Platt said. "I think it's a completely satisfying entertainment. It can be satisfying for an 8-year-old and, for different reasons, no less satisfying for an 80-year-old."

Platt, whose production company's credits include the "Legally Blonde" movies and TV's "Empire Falls," saw a potential project in Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel "Wicked," which spins an imaginative tale of what things were like long before Dorothy crashed Oz.

The producer was thinking a film adaptation at first, but Stephen Schwartz, composer of "Godspell" and "Pippin," suggested a Broadway musical instead (a movie version is now in development).

Winnie Holzman, creator of the mid-1990s ABC show "My So-Called Life," fashioned a sturdy book from the Maguire novel. Schwartz wrote the dynamic music and lyrics.

The original production got a starry boost from performances by Idina Menzel as Elphaba and Kristin Chenoweth as "the good witch," Glinda. Several actresses have since enjoyed successes in those roles on Broadway and on the road.

"If I'm having a bad night, if the voice is not good, the show still gets a standing ovation," said Jeanna de Waal, who plays Glinda in the current tour, "because it's about more than just the lead actors. It's the ensemble, including everyone backstage. It's the script, the set, the lighting, the costumes."

And the never-waning popularity of "The Wizard of Oz."

"When I was a kid in Baltimore, I was used to watching it on television every year," Platt said. "It was a communal event; we experienced it as a family."

That the land of Oz resonates with many people explains some of the magnetic appeal of "Wicked," but there are other factors.

"It's also a beautiful story about friendship and acceptance between two girls who start out hating each other and then find some common ground," said Christine Dwyer, the Elphaba on this tour. "The show speaks to so many people on so many levels. The message is universal, and it's so poignant."

Part of that poignancy comes as much from what happens to the shunned "evil" witch as to the perky "good" one.

"Elphaba has a rocky path in life, but ends up with peace of mind and with a man who loves her," de Waal said. "Glinda's goal is wealth and popularity, but she ends up lonely and empty at the end, even if she meant well. The message is: You have to ask yourself what you actually want, and how honorable it is."

The treatment Elphaba receives, even from Glinda at first, gives "Wicked" a dark edge that makes is something other than just another tuneful, vividly staged musical.

"Elphaba never tries to be wicked," Dwyer said. "She believes everyone should be treated equally. But people are automatically scared of her because she has green skin and magic powers. Anyone can relate to Elphaba. Everyone has felt misunderstood, felt a little bit like an outcast. Everyone has their own version of green."


If you go

"Wicked" runs through Nov. 4 at the Hippodrome, 12 North Eutaw St. Tickets are $37.50-$157.50. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com