The Good, the Bad and the Wicked: Dueling Witches Raise the Roof

Wicked , the delightful prequel to the Wizard of Oz , directed by Joe Mantello at the Gershwin, has no real people. In that escapist sense, it might seem as if it’s following in the comfortable footsteps of Disneyfied Broadway with its living cartoons and puppets and lion kings for all the family. But what rockets it into another, superior realm-apart from its great sense of wit and fun-is the partnership of its two major stars, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.

Two actresses who triumph together in the leading roles of a major Broadway musical must be unique. Both are show-stoppers and apparent opposites. Their Wicked roles seem tailor-made for them. The blond, diminutive bombshell, Ms. Chenoweth (who won a Tony for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown ), is a born comedienne. She’s actually a cartoon brought to amazing life, with a huge soprano voice and a chipmunk delivery, who’s sometimes given to mugging-but not here, not so far. Ms. Chenoweth plays the horribly good Good Witch Glinda, known in the show by her given name, Galinda. “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?” goes the grinning Galinda’s opening line, delivered with the smarmy self-love of the disgustingly blessed.

The tall and beautiful Ms. Menzel (the original belter, Maureen, in Rent ) makes a brilliantly complex and sympathetic Elphaba, a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West. Her big numbers raise the roof. Her demon laugh is quite something. But her earthy sense of surreality takes us by surprise. “All right, fine. We might as well get this over with,” she announces when she enters the stage like a moody schoolkid who’s sick of remarks . “Yes, I’ve always been green.”

The two of them are really One, of course: light and dark, good and evil, conscious and unconscious. And how are you feeling today? Oh, let’s not go into fairy-tale psychology, tempting though it is. Wicked fleetingly drags when it takes itself a little too seriously along the earnest lines of “There’s good and evil in all of us.” I much prefer the joyfully irreverent spirit of the show when the clever, mostly exhilarating score by composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz ( Godspell, Pippin ) has Galinda and Elphaba sing together on their first astonished meeting:

What is this feeling?

Fervid as a flame

Does it have a name?

Yes!

Loathing

Unadulterated loathing …

And the witch duet continues irresistibly: “For your face / Your voice / Your clothing …. “

Wicked ‘s story is a wonderful one. I’d claim, risking sacrilege, that Act I even transcends its legendary inspiration, The Wizard of Oz , by managing to charm us without trying. The show’s first act is also darkly-and deviously-more grown-up than the film, and plain funny. (The looser Act II works less well, but still … ). Winnie Holzman’s winning book, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, takes us back in time to the year B.D. (Before Dorothy), where the Citizens of Oz sing with the fervor of the People in Les Misérables:

Let us rejoicify that goodness could

subdue

The wicked workings of you-know-

who ….

The show relates in flashback how Galinda and Elphaba were roommates at college, where they studied sorcery, and how they became friends in the way that trainee witches who are opposites do. Naturally, there are references to The Wizard of Oz . “That’s right,” Galinda calls out helpfully to an offstage figure. “You just take that one road the whole time …. ” Ms. Holzman can’t resist occasional honest-to-goodness corn. Nor can we. “Which is which?” goes an urgent question to the two witches. A goat flees persecution in the Emerald City: “There’s a goat on the lam!” And a peach of a line, one of the greats: ” Let the green girl go! “

The confident good humor of it all is remarkable. Wicked manages to be both quite cynical and very innocent simultaneously-an impossible feat. At times, the show even verges on traditional pantomime. The bullying college dean is the happily inspired invention of Tony Award–winning actress Carole Shelley. Her aptly named Madame Morrible is a Restoration Comedy figure, a Dickensian grotesque in imaginary cap and gown, an American Widow Twanky in voluminous ruffles. All pantomimes must have a handsome prince.

Norbert Leo Butz, as the apparent airhead Fiyero, is thus the swaggering, princely object of desire of both our leading witches. He’s the rich kid with the castle singing “Life’s more painless, for the brainless …. ”

But this is the thing: The roles of the witches are cannily reversed. Galinda is not all she cutely seems. She’s a future Evita, a goody-goody not to be believed, a devious little witch. The question is: Would you trust her? Even dim Fiyero knows . I hope I’m not giving too much away by pointing out that the Wicked Witch of the West, with the wheelchair-bound sister described as “tragically beautiful,” is really the good witch. She’s the green outsider, the damaged, righteous rebel who seeks out justice in the kingdom of the lost. Elphaba-the Fabulous One-isn’t easy, but she’s my kind of witch. We’re on her side. So will you be when you see pretty-in-pink Galinda parading about the place like a pert prom queen topped off with a tiara.

The witches revert back to their customary selves, but only in the softer second act. “Ev’ry day, more wicked! / Ev’ry day, the terror grows!” There go the citizens of Oz again. But the focus of Mr. Mantello’s big production lost some of its sharpness in the blurry vamping of his Act II. The darker, richer possibilities of the first act began to border on pastiche; the jokey Wizard of Oz references signaled an easier way home. Joel Grey’s Wizard of Oz -in truth a dangerous fraud, a collaborator in survival at all cost, not necessarily a charmer at all-was sentimentalized too much in the vaudevillian winsomeness of his big Act II number, “Wonderful.” He sweetened the healthy subtext of the show’s political parable. Look at the bitter ironies in Mr. Schwartz’s hard-edged lyric:

A man’s a traitor-or liberator

A rich man’s a thief-or philanthropist

Is one a crusader-or ruthless invader?

It’s all in which label

Is able to persist.

The moral ambiguities went soft in Act II, though not fatally. The show has too much going for it for us to worry much about its lapses. I’ll even forgive the set designer’s peculiar clocks. Eugene Lee’s industrial landscape with its dominating time pieces is a weird choice. Though the show travels back in time, it isn’t about time. It’s about magical kingdoms. A great chance was lost to try for the near impossible-a re-invention of the famously scintillating design of the Wizard of Oz movie. But let’s wave a magic wand and pretend the lumbering clocks aren’t really there. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are fantastical enough. The flying monkeys are scary. The shadow-play of Dorothy and the death of shrinking Elphaba behind a mysterious curtain is deftly done. And how the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man became the wrecks they undoubtedly are is another story-a very good story.

But the real magic of Wicked belongs, of course, to the fabulous performances of Ms. Chenoweth and Ms. Menzel, witches for the ages. Book early for Christmas. Next Christmas. Take the kids. The Good, the Bad and the Wicked: Dueling Witches Raise the Roof