Revisionist tales that rewrite the back stories of famous works are darn near irresistible, from Wide Sargasso Sea’s Third World, feminist critique of Jane Eyre to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’s witty take on Hamlet. It’s fun to read Jane Eyre as heedless interloper, see Hamlet as inscrutable, selfish jerk, and, in Wicked, enjoy the Wicked Witch of the West revealed as Oz’s true heroine, with Glinda the Good recast as a catty bitch, the Wizard as a fatuous fascist and Dorothy as an off-screen pain in the ass.
That alternate universe, created by Albany novelist Gregory Maguire and translated into Broadway’s musical spectacular by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, owes more—in terms of design and tone—to the MGM’s beloved, glossy Oz than it does to L. Frank Baum’s curious, cranky, deadpan, and often cracked novels. This is probably why it probably connects to so easily with audiences like the packed house at Proctors on Thursday (Nov. 8).
The backstory on offer here doesn’t belong to the Wizard; it’s the saga of the witches, and it takes us back to their pre-sorcery salad days at Oz’ odd college, “Shiz.” (Did Snoop Dog consult on the book?) Elphaba (Christine Dwyer) is the green one destined for wickedness but, as a teenager, is sweet and goofy and preternaturally gifted with a wand. Galinda (eventually, of course, Glinda, and played by Jeanna De Waal) is, as one of the more beguiling songs curtly describes her, “blonde.”
The show doesn’t work if the audience doesn’t fall in love with Elphaba, and Dwyer wins them over immediately with her gawky charm, sly wit and girlish yearning. (She’s also cute, even under all that green greasepaint.) The audience, in turn, broke into wild applause at every one of Elphaba’s big moments. De Waal has an equally tough character arc, from catty co-ed to vindictive rival to generous and understanding friend.
If all sound soapy, it is. But the soap is nicely cut with some good jokes, an occasionally interesting political subtext, and an absolutely dazzling set that includes a fire-breathing dragon perched above the entire set.
The rest of the cast does well, too. Billy Harrigan Tighe is very good as the witches’ love object, a flighty prince who turns out to have some depth; Jay Russell is poignant as a persecuted goat professor; and, as the Wizard, Paul Kreppel is the personification bumbling, kindly evil.
The music isn’t particularly Oz-like, but it effectively serves the story of a couple of witches who, in the end, aren’t very witchy.