Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire
Directed by Joe Mantello
Open ended run, February, 2009
Kendra Kassebaum as Glinda. Teal Wicks as Elphaba. Photo: Joan Marcus.
“Ding-dong the witch is dead?” I don’t think so. The Wicked Witch of the West, made immortal by L. Frank Baum in the beloved children’s “Oz” series and then again in the Judy Garland movie, has been resurrected, spruced up and is very much alive in at least four U.S. cities and as many abroad, doing very well, thank you, to the tune of some $1.5 billion and still counting.
Gregory Maguire’s wonderfully inventive prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” first hit the stage at the Curran Theater in San Francisco back in 2003 with Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in the leads. Now it’s back, this time at the larger Orpheum, a little glitzed up, but just as much fun as before. Casting, of course, has changed but not necessarily for the worse and the whole thing is over-miked but, as sure as dragons roar, this production is just as exciting as the one I saw in pre-Broadway tryout some six years ago. So, all you West Coast Munchkins, if you missed it first time around, here’s your chance.
Maguire has imagined a time when two young witches, Glinda and Elphaba -- who has had the misfortune to have been born green -- are mismatched as roommates at school. Glinda (Kendra Kassebaum) arrives with trunks of clothes and racks of shoes and a perky demeanor that takes off where Reese Witherspoon’s Legal Blonde left off. Vain, obsessed with popularity, self-centered and slightly light in the head, she takes an instant dislike to the dowdy, bookish and outspoken (not to mention green) girl in her room. It will not remain this way. Among other things, “Wicked” is about friendship and, through an amusing sequence of coincidences, soon the girls are best buddies.
Kassebaum, who did the role in the national tour and again on Broadway, has a lovely voice but she lacks the edge that Chenoweth gave the role. Glinda is really the class bitch, the one you loved to hate when you were in school and it is only through circumstance and consistently playing to the crowd that she earns her full name “Glinda the Good.” The good witch actually is Elphaba and Sacramento native Teal Wicks is very, very good in the role. Wicks, who played the part in Los Angeles, is riveting with her green face and black garb and strong voice. Something of an outcast, she blossoms under Glinda’s tutelage (the song “Popular”). Something of an activist, she catches the attention of the cool newcomer Fiyero as she attempts to rescue a caged lion cub. (There is a strong and slightly scary subtext in this show that recalls the totalitarianism of a Fascist regime). Unfortunately, the handsome Fiyero (a very good Nicolas Dromard) just happens to be Glinda’s boyfriend.
Good and bad are not always what they seem. David Garrison’s affable Wizard really is a pretty bad guy. So is his henchwoman, the sorceress Madame Morrible who begins the show as headmistress of the college and ends as press secretary to the Wiz. She is played to the hilt by the inimitable Carol Kane (“Taxi,” “Hester Street,” “The Princess Bride”). Elphaba’s pitiable handicapped little sister Nessarose (Deedee Magno Hall) turns out to be a tyrant when she gets a little power. Most important of all, Elphaba herself is not wicked but demonized for political purposes.
Stephen Schwartz’s music is pleasant and suited to the plot but don’t be surprised if you can’t hum a single tune on the way out. His lyrics are terrific, if you can decipher them out of all the reverb from the mikes. Susan Hilferty’s costumes and Eugene Lee’s sets will dazzle your eyes so that you may have to wear sunglasses like the denizens of the Emerald City. To find out for yourself, all you have to do is follow the Yellow Brick Road.