The fictional Shiz University, founded in 2003 with the unveiling of the landmark musical Wicked, actually sells school apparel online. That’s a far cry from its tempestuous beginnings, when Wicked couldn’t buy a favorable review on Broadway as it opened 15 years ago Oct. 30.
But students Glinda Upland and Elphaba Thropp — the former of the sticky-sweet celebrity, the latter of the Kelly green skin and jet-black temperament — had other ideas. By the time Wicked got here three years later, it was the toast of the country, and it’s won 10 Tonys, a Grammy and 11 Drama Desk Awards among its 33 nominations through 2017.
As you know, it’s back for a third outstanding run, having cemented a spot among the West Side Storys and Hello, Dollys of the world. As with those iconic shows, time and the elements may have rendered Wicked (now the seventh longest-running musical in Broadway history) a tad long in the tooth for some. But as declared Gregory Maguire, author of the 1995 novel that started all this:
“A witch may die, but she will always come back — always.”
Y’all know the story, or at least its original counterpart, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which pits Glinda the Good Witch against the Wicked Witch of the West as befuddled Kansan Dorothy Gale looks on: Glinda (formerly Galinda) and Elphaba (a play on Oz author L. Frank Baum’s handle) forged a love-hate relationship at Shiz, betraying their opposite personalities, their rivalry over the same guy, their disdain for the Wizard’s exhaustive corruption and Glinda’s delight at Elphaba’s plummeting public stock.
But director Joe Mantello asserts that looks can be deceiving, even ironical. Glinda, a butter-wouldn’t-melt, self-serving, manipulative bitch, is all talk, while Elphaba’s sense of doom for Shiz’s faculty will earn her closet heroine status among those who matter.
My lips are sealed as to the twisted bond between Elphaba and the Wizard — but the upshot sends Glinda into an epiphany of mourning for her friend, who leaves Oz forever by the seat of her viridescent pants.
There’s a certain preachiness here, with overtones on animal cruelty and rights of the disabled introduced just as the plotlines start to boil. They’re nice interludes if you’re Bertolt Brecht, who’d have had no problem citing them in his socialist aesthetic — but he was a different kind of playwright, his gritty music and dialogue devoid of the glitz behind composer/lyricist Steven Schwartz’s outstanding efforts and librettist Winnie Holzman’s malapropist whimsy.
But this citation is far from a fatal flaw. The Oz narrative is so imaginative that a backstory (however glamorous) was inevitable, and Wicked’s worldwide success (grosses are inching toward $5 billion) marks its public sanction, as it will for many seasons to come.
Kara Lindsay’s Glinda and Jackie Burns’ Elphaba trade love-hate barbs (“What Is This Feeling?”) with tennis-player stamina. Lindsay’s “Popular” approaches the professional presentation of a Kristin Chenoweth, her original predecessor — even so, Lindsay’s svelteness ever so slightly undermines the pixie that drives Glinda’s character.
But oh, for Burns! Her Elphaba puts everything on the table without reserve — she’s a no-nonsense, driven enigma of a student and friend whose connection with Shiz’s Dr. Dillamond (an excellent Chad Jennings) defines her urgency to life. Burns devours the role accordingly; she’s as plaintive (“As Long As You’re Mine”) as she is mutinous at the drop of a hat — witness the stunning climax in her “Deyfing Gravity.” Absolutely outstanding in every respect.
Spectacle parallels story in every measure, with the fly space working overtime among Glinda’s airborne bubble, the obligatory flying monkeys and Elphaba’s omnipresent broom. Eugene Lee’s sets and Kenneth Posner’s lighting are one, with Susan Hilferty’s costumes revealing as much about one character as the other. William David Brohn’s orchestrations collaborate with it all, the 21-tune musical counterpart to as dizzying a technical explosion as you’ll find.
What little moralizing there is here is also part of the Ozian theme — and though it comes dangerously close to taking on a life of its own, the show’s thirst for spectacle eclipses it time after time. Wicked is a classically beautiful piece, at once a formidable teacher and a cultural marker on respect, human dignity and the lessons therein. Hard to believe it’s only 15 years old — its tenets, after all, are as ancient as the theater itself.
This review is based on the performance of Nov. 1. Wicked runs through Nov. 25 at Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. Downtown. $63-$574. 619-570-1100, broadwaysd.com.