By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Welcome back Wicked, a gorgeous musical last in Philadelphia three years ago. The current production, part of the Broadway series at the Academy of Music, is full of great songs by Stephen Schwartz sung with full-throated passion by a uniformly fine cast. Excellent understudy Laurel Harris stepped into the central role of Elphaba without missing a note or a beat on opening night.
The book by Winnie Holzman is based on Gregory Maguire’s best-selling novel of the same title, and imagines the plot of Wizard of Oz from another perspective; Dorothy is just an unseen farm girl who stole a pair of shoes off a dead body, while the main characters are the Wicked Witch of the West (Harris, in the role usually played by Allison Luff) and Glinda (Jenn Gambatese), the good witch who travels in a bubble. The basic issue is not the easy opposition between good and evil, but the troubling realm of moral ambiguity we all inhabit, in Oz or not.
The plot, which follows the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda, provides lots of issues without preaching about them: how power leads to tyranny, how racism creates rage, how cruelty to animals diminishes our humanity, how love can triumph over jealousy but only at high cost. It’s a smart show—probably even smarter if you could actually understand all the cleverly rhymed lyrics often lost in the miked singing over the big orchestra.
The Wizard (John Davidson), Nessarose, Elphaba’s sister (Jaime Rosenstein), the romantic lead Fiyero (Curt Hansen) and Madame Morrible (Kim Zimmer) are the major figures in a huge ensemble of flying monkeys and munchkins.
By Act Two, the story has caught up to the plot of The Wizard of Oz, and there are nifty references to the original; the audience actually applauded with delight when Elphaba appears to her sister in a mirror: “What are you doing here?” asks Nessarose, and Elphaba replies, “Well, there’s no place like home.”
There is super spectacle (a dragon with red eyes oversees the stage—if you go, don’t forget to look up!) and the lighting (designed by Kenneth Posner) and interesting costumes (designed Susan Hilferty) contribute to the overall pleasure of the show.