Oz witches weave a wickedly good spell

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Michael Toscano

Still afraid of the flying monkeys? Does the memory of Margaret Hamilton’s cackle as the Wicked Witch of the West still give you the creeps?

Here’s the chance to undo those horrors, to see the magical land of Oz in an entirely new (though still green-tinged) light. The Kennedy Center has brought back to the Opera House the Grammy and Tony Award-winning musical Wicked, “the untold story of the witches of Oz.”

The show broke box-office records when it played KenCen in 2005, and will likely do the same again this year, as the show retains all the vibrant charm of that original Broadway-cast tour.

It may also be the only musical that parents and grandparents can enjoy right along with their tween-and-teen-aged daughters. The music is a middle-of-the-yellow-brick-road, pop-oriented mélange.

Yes, it’s contemporary, but while songs can be either comical or emotionally stirring, the score never really strays from comfortable pop conventions. The score is thematic, a cinematic aspect reminding us of the show’s movie pedigree.

Oz’s back story

Focused as we all have been on Dorothy and her companions as they traipsed their way to Oz, you likely never wondered how Glinda got to be a “good witch” or how the green-faced one got to be the “bad witch.”

You weren’t aware that WWW (Wicked Witch of the West) was really named Elphaba, that her hue caused her much childhood angst, and that she and Glinda had been schoolgirl friends.

Based on Gregory Maguire’s best-selling novel, Wicked features music and lyrics from Stephen Schwartz, who also gave us such stage and film hits as Godspell, Pippin, Pocahantas and The Prince of Egypt. The book is from Winnie Holzman, who has experience with teen dramas as creator of TV’s “My So-Called Life.”

Music and dialogue each explore what it means to be an outsider. Elphaba crackles with intelligence and a fierce independence, the result of being shunned because of her emerald epidermis. But the tough exterior is a shell protecting a vulnerable, lonely girl.

Galinda, who later drops the extra “a” (you have to be there), is pretty, popular and nurtures a predatory social ambition. Improbable friends, their relationship sets in motion a chain of events that lead us, more or less behind the scenes, to the characters and the climax made familiar in the iconic Wizard of Oz film.

So, some of it’s vaguely familiar, but it’s oh-so-different. Context, it turns out, really is everything. Even flying monkeys can be less terrifying when you know their back-story. And maybe that evil cackle is really just a manifestation of social awkwardness.

Add to that a love triangle, a fall from grace, and even some pointed political and sociological commentary, and there’s plenty to hold one’s attention.

Oh, yes. There’s the Wizard himself, of course, a supporting role that has nevertheless attracted such luminaries as Joel Grey, Ben Vereen and Kevin Kline to the Broadway cast. (Mark Jacoby has the role here.)

The original, 2003 Broadway cast starred perky little sprite Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda, and Idina Menzel won a Tony as Elphaba. Menzel played the role during the 2005 stop at the Kennedy Center and electrified audiences.

The work those performers put into the roles is still evident with the current cast, Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda and Dee Roscioli as Elphaba. In fact, Cooper has every last physical move and vocal inflection Chenoweth used to build her portrayal, turning in a perfect replica of her performance.

A new wicked witch in town

Roscioli, who also played the part on Broadway before joining the touring production, is credited as handling more performances as Elphaba than any other actress. So she has had more opportunity to shape the role to her own sensibilities.

This Elphaba is less introspective than the character we saw here in 2005, and Roscioli’s singing is more muscular than Menzel’s. But Roscioli slowly builds intensity, breezing through the early “The Wizard and I” by showing just a hint of the force she is holding in reserve.

With the unrequited-love ballad “I’m Not That Girl,” she movingly explores the bleak landscape of an empty heart. By the time she gets to the iconic, powerful act one ender “Defying Gravity,” she is going all out and fills the Opera House with rich mezzo-soprano tones.

But it is in the middle of act two where Roscioli’s power-packed approach makes the biggest difference. In the anthem “No Good Deed,” Elphaba realizes that all her good deeds have backfired and cannot change her renown as “wicked.”

Bitterly accepting this status, reveling in it, Roscioli’s Elphaba explodes with energy which makes this song replace the more positive “Defying Gravity” as the show’s musical high point.

A bubbly good witch

Cooper’s voice is not nearly as strong, but as the role is more comedic than dramatic, it’s OK. She’s positively effervescent in “Popular,” a funny song that nevertheless has a few witty barbs.

Cooper keeps Galinda/Glinda’s bubbly charm in check just enough to allow for some emotional growth, which significantly aids in reaching a soaring emotional pinnacle.

Most of the other roles are dutifully performed, with no real standouts.

Director Joe Mantello, a two-time Tony winner, allows the dramatic tension to build, while keeping his 37-member ensemble active and engaged. The cast goes easy on the political barbs that Holzman couldn’t resist (dropping a house on a witch is referred to as “regime change”).

They negotiate their way over, around and through the various intricate set pieces from designer Eugene Lee that exemplify industrial age wonders. That would seem to be homage to creator L. Frank Baum and the era in which his Wizard of Oz originally appeared.

The set, with its meshing gears motif, often appears to be much like the inner workings of machinery or time-pieces, and Wayne Cilento’s practical choreography makes the most of the challenging spaces.

With constant set changes, special effects and dramatically dynamic lighting from Kenneth Posner, Oz and environs make wonderful eye candy indeed. Especially if green is your favorite color.

The music is a bit disappointing. On opening night, there was a 20-piece orchestra, an amalgam of a small touring core of musicians augmented by members of the Opera House Orchestra. But the sound is relatively thin, with heavy emphasis on keyboard synthesis that gives some of the music a grating artificial tone. 

Loving the MGM film undoubtedly adds several layers of emotional resonance to seeing this show. Seeing a few scenes and several familiar characters in an entirely new way allows us to build on the feelings we already may hold.

But with its themes of acceptance and tolerance, powerful lead performances, a spectacular Broadway-level staging, and some engaging tunes, this trip to Oz is one that can be just as enjoyable for grandkids and grandparents alike.

Wicked continues through August 21 at the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW in Washington DC.

Tickets range from $37 to $250. They are on sale at the Kennedy Center Box Office, by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600, or online at www.kennedy-center.org/tickets. Weeknight performances offer the best availability for tickets. The Kennedy Center offers standing room only tickets for $35 at sold-out performances.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with matinee shows at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There will be special audio-described performances Wednesday, July 6 at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 27 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, July 29 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, July 30 at 1:30 p.m. A signed and captioned performance is scheduled for Tuesday, July 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Michael Toscano is the Beacon’s theater critic.