Imagine two girls, as different as different can be. One is blonde and bubbly and wildly popular. The other is green and compassionate and friendless. They meet at Shiz University, and – could it be? – they are expected to be roommates. That is the setup for “Wicked,” based on Gregory Maguire's highly imaginative prequel to L. Frank Baum's Oz books.
The play works on several levels. Good characters are not always good, and “wicked” is a misconstrued adjective. Themes include animal rights, the importance of friendship and the seduction of power.
Stephen Schwartz's music runs the gamut from vaudeville to classic Broadway to bubble-gum pop. There's something for everyone. His lyrics are laced with double entendres, a linguistic delight.
Another hook is Winnie Holzman's book, spiked with references that illustrate how much the land of Oz is a touchstone of American cultural literacy. In this age of hundreds of television stations and countless information streams, it's a comfort to know common references span generations.
Director Joe Mantello elicits stark contrasts of dark and light. Jeanna de Waal is an effervescent Glinda. Upbeat and confident, her heart of gold trumps her silliness. Her body language is open and inviting, and her smile omnipresent.
Christine Dwyer plays Elphaba, aka the Wicked Witch. Green from birth, she is disliked by her father and mocked by her peers. Dwyer gives Elphaba the right combination of awkwardness and defiance. Her gestures are withdrawn and suggest that she has seldom been touched. Her rare smile feels like a reward.
Set designer Eugene Lee was inspired by Maguire's descriptions of the Clock of the Time Dragon. The proscenium arch is dominated by that dragon, a creature with pterodactyl-like wings and frightening red eyes. He hovers over an ancient clock face, surrounded by gears and cogs wrapped in gnarled vines. Macabre monkeys dance in the shadows.
It is visually delightful when the scenes flip from dark to light. The trip to Oz and the revelation of the Yellow Brick Road feel like Technicolor replacing black-and-white Kansas in the beloved feature film.
Susan Hilferty's costumes are otherworldly. Stripes meet in asymmetric patterns. Madame Morrible's bustle is a plump pillow. If leprechauns went shopping with the Jetsons, then took the result to be tailored by Elton John, their costumes might look like those worn by citizens of Oz. Glinda is a spotlight of color: Her garments mature as she does, from frilly party dresses to a shimmering gown fit for royalty.
The sound is inconsistent, and if you sit on the far sides of the orchestra close to the stage, you'll miss elements of certain scenes. But most of the action stays within the purview of the audience.
Rarely has a song fit a character as well as “Popular” fits Glinda, and she wears it well. Elphaba is a showstopper in “Defying Gravity,” as she rises in the air amid a hallucinatory blaze of striped lighting. The girl from Kansas whose house will later crush the Wicked Witch is just a shadow in this show, but you won't miss her.