CLEVELAND — “Wicked” is wonderful. For anyone who thought that composer Stephen Schwartz peaked with his scores for “Godspell” and “Pippin” back in the ‘70s, “Wicked” offers incontrovertible proof that there are indeed second acts in American life — or at least the American musical theater. If Schwartz’s “Wicked” score is more impressive in bits and pieces than as a whole, act one closer “Defying Gravity” remains the best show tune written for a Broadway musical since you-know-what from “Dreamgirls” more than two decades ago. (And “Popular,” “I’m Not That Girl” and “No Good Deed” aren’t too shabby either.)
I’ll admit that I was a tad skeptical going in. Since premiering on Broadway in 2003, “Wicked” has built up a fanatical cult following comparable to “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent,” tuners that left me utterly cold. Could “Wicked” live up to the hype/hysteria of its rabid fan base, or would it turn out to be all smoke and mirrors?
That skepticism was probably responsible for my deliberate avoidance of the show until now. Furthermore, my last visit to Playhouse Square’s elephantine State Theatre was a profoundly alienating experience. I felt so distanced from the performers that I might as well have been sitting in the bleachers at Progressive Field.
O ye, of little faith!
Brilliantly adapted by Winnie Holzman (creator of TV’s “My So-Called Life”) from Gregory Maguire’s best-selling novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” “Wicked” serves up a revisionist take on the L. Frank Baum perennial that’s as ingenious as it is well-nigh irresistible. Told mostly in flashbacks, the play begins with Good Witch Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) celebrating the death of wicked witch Elphaba (Donna Vivino) with her fellow Oz-ians (“No One Mourns the Wicked”). Jumping back in time, we witness the birth of “unnaturally green” Elphaba; her unhappy stint at Shiz U. (a sort of precursor to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) where she serves as caretaker for wheelchair-bound kid sister Nessarose (Brynn O’Malley); and Elphaba’s apocryphal meeting with fellow student/“Mean Girl” Glinda.
Despite having built an almost soulmate connection at Shiz (immortalized in song with “Popular”), Elphaba and Glinda eventually part ways over the love of a boy (Richard H. Blake’s “genuinely self-absorbed and deeply shallow” Fiyero). Holzman’s “Life” background probably explains why Elphaba and Fiyero seem like antecedents of that show’s Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano.
But there’s more to “Wicked” than just schoolyard crushes and adolescent romantic rivalries.
I love how Holzman generously layers her script with delicious “Easter eggs” for Oz-philes (clever references to the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, flying monkeys, the Yellow Brick Road, ruby slippers, tornadoes, “wretched little farm girl” Dorothy Gale and even Toto abound) without succumbing to wink-wink, nudge-nudge “Shrek”-isms. Rather than distracting us from the main story, those wittily whimsical “Wizard of Oz” quotations actually enhance our enjoyment of the show. (My only quibble is with Glinda’s plethora of cutesy malapropisms that make her sound like a cross between Norm Crosby and Sarah Palin.)
Director Joe Mantello has crafted that rare theme-park musical where the spectacle never overwhelms or dissipates the emotional content of the piece.
“Wicked” brings as much dignity and class to that oft-derided subgenre of B’way musical as “Jersey Boys” brought to the equally castigated “jukebox musical.” Eugene Lee’s sumptuous set design (dig that groovy Emerald City!), Susan Hilferty’s exquisite costumes and technical supervisor Jake Bell’s mind-blowing, state-of-the-art special effects are truly Broadway caliber. This isn’t some chintzy, streamlined road-company version of the New York production: it’s the whole megillah and then some.
That Tony-worthiness extends to the couldn’t-be-improved-upon cast. Vivino, Schwartz and O’Malley are spectacularly good, and Ben Liebert (Boq), Richard Kline (the Wizard) and Randy Danson (duplicitous Shiz headmistress Madame Morrible) match their illustriousness every step of the way.
Mantello’s gloriously mounted staging of “Wicked” deserves every accolade in my critics’ thesaurus. If you somehow managed to miss the show during any of its previous Cleveland or Pittsburgh engagements, don’t let it pass you by this time. Think of it as an early Christmas gift to yourself or to any loved ones who treasure great musical theater.
X“Wicked” plays through Dec. 13 at the State Theatre in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. For tickets, call (216) 241-6000.