Reviewed by Judy Richter
"Wicked" has returned to San Francisco, where the musical began its journey to Broadway acclaim and some Tony Awards two years ago. People who saw the earlier incarnation say the new one is much improved. Certainly it has much to praise in its national touring version. Winnie Holzman based her book on a novel by Gregory Maguire, who created a back story for L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz," which was made into the classic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, "Wicked" chronicles the changing relationship between Glinda (Kendra Kassebaum), the good witch, and Elphaba (Eden Espinosa), the wicked witch. When they meet at Shiz, an Ozian school overseen by Madame Morrible (Carol Kane), neither has become a full-fledged witch. However, they are assigned to each other as roommates and fall into instant loathing ("What Is This Feeling?"). Glinda, pretty, pert and ditsy, is focused solely on being "Popular" while the green-tinted, serious and smart Elphaba has higher aspirations and must look out for her sister, Nessarose (Jenna Leigh Green), who uses a wheelchair. As the show continues, however, Elphaba and Glinda evolve into more complex characters and become friends even when they both fall for the same man, Fiyero (Derrick Williams). There are political undertones in the repression of people who are different or who express views contrary to the norm. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (David Garrison) is shown to be even more of a fraud than in the movie. Movie references, by the way, are generally subtle but fun to find. The singing and acting are solid, and the ensemble deserves specal mention for its versatility.
Visual treats abound, thanks to Joe Mantello's deft direction and Wayne Cilento's musical staging along with Eugene Lee's sets, Susan Hilferty's imaginative costumes, Kenneth Posner's lighting, Elaine J. McCarthy's projections and Tom Watson's wigs and hair. However, Tony Meola's sound design is overamplified, distorting dialogue. Robert Billing directs the topnotch orchestra. Schwartz's lyrics are often quite clever, and most of his songs are catchy.
The show is great entertainment and, if opening night is any indication, it is drawing a crowd of younger people to the theater -- always a hopeful sign.