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Boston Touring Company Is 'Wicked' Good

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; book by Winnie Holzman; based on the novel by Gregory Maguire; settings by Eugene Lee; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Kenneth Posner; sound by Tony Meola; orchestrations by William David Brohn; music supervisor, Stephen Oremus; musical staging by Wayne Cilento; directed by Joe Mantello

Cast in order of appearance:
Glinda, Christina DeCicco; Witch's Father, Paul Slade Smith; Witch's Mother, Lori Holmes; Midwife, Leslie Becker; Elphaba, Victoria Matlock; Nessarose, DeeDee Magno Hall; Boq, Brad Weinstock; Madame Morrible, Barbara Tirrell; Doctor Dillamond, Tom Flynn; Fiyero, Cliffton Hall; The Wonderful Wizard, P.J. Benjamin; Chistery, Kyle Hill

Performances: Now through November 11, The Opera House, 539 Washington  St., Boston, Mass.
Box Office: Ticketmaster, 617-931-2787 or www.ticketmaster.com; The Opera House or The Colonial Theater, 106 Boylston St., Boston, Mass.; BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com. A limited number of day-of-performance $25 lottery seats (cash only) are available in-person at the box office prior to each show. People must submit their names 2-1/2 hours before curtain. Thirty minutes later, winners will be drawn. Limit two tickets per person.

For those who think the smash hit Broadway musical Wicked is nothing more than a tween girl sensation, take a look at the crowds that are buzzing in the lobby of the historic Opera House now that the national tour of this record-breaking phenomenon has landed in Boston once again. Families, younger couples, older couples, groups, teens, tweens, and men and women of all ages are clamoring for tickets to this musical juggernaut that in five years has become a world-wide franchise.

And rightly so. Based on the same-titled Gregory Maguire novel which itself is based on the iconic Frank L. Baum series that inspired the beloved movie The Wizard of Oz, Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's Wicked is a rare commodity these days. It's an intelligent book musical with an accessible original score that features two dynamic yet imperfect heroines who grow and change for the better when faced with difficult challenges. It has heart, humor, and a social and political conscience woven cleverly into a universally appealing story of friendship and courage.

Starring Victoria Matlock as the good but misunderstood awkward green girl Elphaba who later becomes the hated Wicked Witch of the West and Christina DeCicco as her blonde, popular, celebrity-seeking but ultimately right-doing counterpart Glinda the Good, this national touring company of Wicked has seemingly brought even more intensity to an established winner. The dramatic tension that drives Elphaba to oppose the Wizard's oppressive control over Oz but leads Glinda to choose a career as his spin doctor is heightened in this production, making the women's friendship and anguish over taking opposing stands on the governmental battlefield that much more powerful. Both actresses find layers in their characters that enhance their love for one another but also deepen their inner conflicts, thus making their ultimate acts of heroism that much more difficult and exalted. Both of their performances are filled with originality and charm. They bring their own sincere interpretations to roles that could (and have in the hands of some replacements) easily become superficial knock-offs of the originals.

Matlock's youthful Elphaba possesses a self-effacing but never self-pitying dry humor that moves to exuberant joy and optimism when the very quirks that made her an outcast as a young girl suddenly thrust her into the limelight as the Wizard's chosen apprentice (The Wizard and I). That unbridled enthusiasm quickly turns to painful disillusionment, then passionate and bold determination to fight the injustices that she now sees are being imposed on the animals of the kingdom by none other than her former idol. This transformation culminates in the thrilling Defying Gravity which Matlock tinges with a fierce but also quiet inner strength.

DeCicco is a revelation as Glinda. When she makes her celebrated entrance in her famous crystalline bubble, she enhances her slightly self-absorbed magnetic charm with a maturity that makes her completely believable as an honorable leader of an adoring public. And her gorgeous soprano soars, turning the opening number No One Mourns the Wicked into a plaintive epitaph for a friend whose tragic destiny she both admires and regrets. When the clocks are turned back and we discover how Elphaba and Glinda first meet, dislike each other, then ultimately grow to become best friends, DeCicco gives us a delightfully fresh take on the bubble headed, blonde and ebullient belle of the ball. Her perkiness and humor come from a place of naive truth inside her, and she mixes her straightforward egotism with a genuine vulnerability and warmth that make her as sympathetic to the audience as Elphaba is once their divergent fates unfold.

The chemistry between Matlock and DeCicco is scintillating. During Popular, Glinda's big makeover number in which she is determined to transform Elphaba into a clone of herself, DeCicco resists the temptation to load the song with scene-stealing shtick. Instead she tempers her flashes of girlish excitement with real affection for her subject, thus enabling Matlock to respond with wry humor to mask her uncertainty and discomfort at being given so much positive attention. In their final duet, For Good, a lovely, tender, and empowering number that allows these evolving women to acknowledge how they have been changed forever by knowing each other, their mutual respect and love is so palpable that they shed real tears. This touring duo is a terrific pairing, and they have injected what could have been nothing more than a carbon copy of the Broadway Wicked with re-envisioned nuance and depth.

The entire company, in fact, brings wonderful energy to this production. The emotional stakes have been raised higher than last year's tour, making the dark aspects darker and the supporting characters more vigorously defined. Cliffton Hall has imbued his Fiyero with great swagger, sensuality, and heroism, making the triangle between him, Glinda and Elphaba more dramatic. DeeDee Magno Hall as Elphaba's sister Nessarose grows in complexity from a sweetly submissive "tragically beautiful girl in the chair" to a bitter potentate consumed by self-pity. Her transformation into the Wicked Witch of the East is totally believable and very powerful.

Tom Flynn as Doctor Dillamond is intelligent and heartbreaking, the kind of quietly outspoken professor that open-minded students would certainly idolize and wary administrations would undoubtedly try to silence. P.J. Benjamin as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a sinister combination of benevolent dictator and power-mad oppressor whose smarmy fatherly persona can't hide the evil lurking behind the curtain. And Barbara Tirrell as Madame Morrible is deliciously threatening and unlikable, just intense enough to be scary without crossing over into caricature.

Stephen Schwartz's combination of pop tunes and power ballads is beautifully sung by strong soloists and a rousing and harmonic ensemble. Wayne Cilento's choreography has never looked more dynamic or expressive, and Susan Hilferty's costumes, Eugene Lee's sets, and Kenneth Posner's lighting all lend the perfect blend of whimsy and foreboding to Winnie Holzman's witty and thoughtful book.

Special note should be drawn to the sound technicians for this production. Voices and orchestra are beautifully balanced in a facility where music is often over-amplified and electronically distorted. The sound of this Wicked is rich and resonant. Technicians have done a masterful job taming the acoustic challenges of the Opera House.

Taking a beloved fantasy and turning it on its ear, Wicked has undeniable appeal. There are just enough remnants from the tale of Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man woven into this prequel to The Wizard of Oz to surprise and satisfy the most diehard Baum fan. There is also an empowering tale of friendship between two unlikely but universally recognizable heroines that has clearly enthralled a new generation of theater-goers. Wicked may not be the perfect musical, but it is a perfectly satisfying story of two young women making a difference in each other and their world.

PHOTOS BY JOAN MARCUS: Victoria Matlock and Christina DeCicco as Elphaba and Glinda; Christina DeCicco as Glinda; P.J. Benjamin as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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