It's too soon to tell whether Schwartz's score for Wicked, which opened Thursday at the Gershwin Theatre, will prove as enduring. But it's safe to say that this is the most complete, and completely satisfying, new musical I've come across in a long time. The triumph is not Schwartz's alone. Adapted from a Gregory Maguire novel, Wicked offers a post-feminist, socially conscious reinterpretation of the story of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West. Though that may sound like a recipe for pretentious pedantry, writer Winnie Holzman, whose TV credits include thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, provides a libretto that juggles winning irreverence with thoughtfulness and heart.
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Based on novelist Gregory Maguire's 1995 adult variation on the Wizard of Oz mythology, Wicked provides a prequel to the children's book and movie. The lavishly designed musical addresses complex themes, such as standards of beauty, individual morality and, believe it or not, opposing fascism. Thanks to Winnie Holzman's witty book and composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz's robust and pop-inflected score, Wicked soars.
As a parable of fascism and freedom, "Wicked" so overplays its hand that it seriously dilutes its power to disturb. Much of the impact of Baum's original novel, like that of so many fantasy stories, came from haunting, symbolic figures that readers interpret on their own terms. Though there have been numerous literary analyses of Baum's "Oz" as a coded case for populism and agrarian reform, the book never feels like a tract. "Wicked," on the other hand, wears its political heart as if it were a slogan button. This is true not only of the dialogue, but also of Mr. Schwartz's generically impassioned songs, which have that to-the-barricades sound of the omninously underscored anthems of "Les Misérables." Though the talk is festooned with cutely mangled word ("swankified," "thrillified," "gratitution") that bring to mind the language of Smurfs, there's a rock-hard lecture beneath the preciousness. Mr. Mantello reconciles the gap between form and content only in Ms. Chenoweth's performance.
Described as a dense epic fantasy, 'Wicked," based on a novel, is an intricate work. It tells the story of Elphaba, the bright but neglected young girl born with green skin who is good and kind. How she turns into the wicked witch is a long, winding road filled with bizarre characters and strange plot twists. The problem with the show's book, by Winnie Holzman, is that it has to cover so much ground in a connect-the-dots fashion that we're deprived of the necessary depth and character development to make us really care about Elphaba or her unlikely friend Galinda, who later becomes Glinda the good witch. Director Joe Mantello handles the intimate scenes well, but he's not quite as successful moving the traffic on Eugene Lee's dark, mechanical set. The ensemble numbers are indistinguishable. The special effects were impressive but a show of this caliber needed more. Stephen Schwartz, the composer behind "Godspell" and "Pippin," has written some lovely music, particularly his ballads for the witches, but the score is uneven and the beautiful melodies that marked his earlier works are disappointingly absent here.
It's not easy being green. Or blonde, for that matter. Those are just two of the many lessons to be learned from this big, murky new Broadway musical. But maybe the most salient pointer is that it ain't easy being a Broadway musical. A strenuous effort to be all things to all people tends to weigh down this lumbering, overstuffed $14 million production. "Wicked" is stridently earnest one minute, self-mocking the next; a fantastical allegory about the perils of fascism in one scene, a Nickelodeon special about the importance of inner beauty in another. There are flying monkeys, flying witches and flying scenery, but the musical itself truly soars only on rare occasions, usually when one of its two marvelously talented leading ladies, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, unleashes the kind of vocal magic that needs no supernatural or even technical assistance.
Wicked," the "prequel" to "The Wizard of Oz," is an interminable show with no dramatic logic or emotional center. Constantly lurching in different directions, the show seems to believe that whenever you reach an artistic impasse, throw money at it - in this case, $14 million.