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‘Wicked’ Musical Shows Another Side of Oz

October 31, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) _ The winding path of the Yellow Brick Road has never seemed so full of twists and turns. And Dorothy is the least of it.

Welcome to the world of ``Wicked,″ a lavish, ambitious and problematic new Broadway musical that dares to see Oz from another angle. We’re talking ``The Wizard of Oz″ here, and a new perspective on the L. Frank Baum classic, one loosely adapted from Gregory Maguire’s cult novel about those other, lesser-known Oz gals _ Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, later known as the Wicked Witch of the West.

``Wicked″ is a big musical. Big in its overstuffed plot. Big in its marvelous lead performances by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, two of the brightest stars in a new generation of musical-theater talent. And big in its setting, a fantasy environment by designer Eugene Lee that effectively fills the cavernous stage of the Gershwin Theater like no other show since ``Sweeney Todd″ _ which also was designed by Lee.

The musical has a reported price tag of $14 million, and you can see every penny in Lee’s eye-popping designs. With pulleys and levers, much of the Gershwin looks like the inner workings of a large Swiss clock. And we haven’t even gotten to the fire-breathing dragon that hangs over the proscenium arch. Or the grillwork from which the flying monkeys swing and swirl.

At its core, ``Wicked,″ reworked by Winnie Holzman, is a dark, melancholy morality tale. It’s a story of fitting-in and youthful friendship pulled apart _ of Glinda (Chenoweth), a blond, cheerleader type, and Elphaba (Menzel), the green-skinned outsider. Pushed together as sorcery-college roommates, they develop an ambivalent relationship that’s tested by the arrival of the handsome but party-loving Fiyero (Norbert Leo Butz).

Glinda bends the rules to remain well-liked; Elphaba won’t and suffers for her principles, turning bitter and eventually into the witch we all know from Baum and the Judy Garland movie.

Holzman crams a lot into the evening, and the show gets bogged down in Act 2 in some murky moralizing about hypocrisy, although director Joe Mantello always seems to have matters under control. Yet the plot, for all its excesses, is not the real problem.

Where ``Wicked″ shrinks and stalls for time is in its score by Stephen Schwartz, composer of ``Godspell″ and ``Pippin″ as well as several Disney animated films. It’s an odd mixture of ponderous pop anthems and more conventional musical-theater material that only occasionally rises to the level of the show’s sterling cast.

One such moment occurs in ``Popular,″ Chenoweth’s big first-act comedy number in which Glinda announces she will make over the somber Elphaba. Blondes do have more fun, she coos. Chenoweth’s perpetually perky Glinda is vain, spoiled and absolutely adorable. And the actress sings like a dream.

So does Menzel, a fierce, compelling actress, but she is saddled with Schwartz’s more bombastic melodies, each one calculated to get the audience cheering but not do much to advance the plot or reveal character.

A charming Joel Grey, who plays the hapless Wizard, is underutilized. He has a modestly jaunty ditty called ``Wonderful,″ which allows him to nimbly scamper across the stage and dance quite lovingly with Menzel. The song sets up the Wizard’s philosophy of just going along with the crowd, a creed not much different from Glinda’s calculated way of positive thinking.

In other supporting roles, Carole Shelley, as the Wizard’s evil helpmate, comes off best. The actress, done up to look like Bette Davis in ``The Virgin Queen,″ snarls with high comic glee.

There’s not much call for dancing in the show, so Wayne Cilento’s choreography seems to consist mostly of peasantlike frolicking.

One of the joys of ``Wicked″ is to see the story of ``The Wizard of Oz″ flickering in the background. Not to give away too much, watch out for some unusual takes on the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

And what of Dorothy, the heroine of Baum’s original? She’s there, too, tantalizingly elusive but true to the little girl we all know. Despite the changes ``Wicked″ brings to ``Oz,″ some things remain sacred.

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