It's Not Easy Being Green

A struggle for witching dominance is a brilliant idea, but as a play it lacks substance

"The untold story of the witches of Oz" starts with a familiar scene: A tornado-blown house lands on a witch, Munchkins rejoice, and an ethereal Good Witch floats down in a bubble, waving like a prom queen. Isn't it wonderful, she says, that the Wicked Witch of the East is dead. Now all we have to worry about is the Wicked Witch of the West. There's a song -- not a very good one -- apparently called "Good News! She's Dead!," and then someone points out that the sparkly Good Witch, Glinda, was once friends with her green-skinned, still-living nemesis.

Well -- yes, she says. But that's a long story.

The set whirls and transports the audience to an Oz that was never imagined by L. Frank Baum. (It was imagined by Gregory Maguire in his 1995 fantasy novel Wicked.) A green girl named Elphaba is born to a poor woman who dies in childbirth. Elphaba and her crippled sister, Nessarose (who is not green but will die under Dorothy's house), go to witch school as shy, retiring wallflowers. Also in their class is a spoiled blonde named Glinda. She wears sleek white skirt-suit ensembles and expects first-class treatment from the headmistress, Madame Morrible. It's clear soon enough that Elphaba, the green outcast, has more talent for witchery than Glinda, and Elphaba's brilliance brings her to the attention of the Wizard of Oz. When she realizes the Wizard is not just a poky old shyster but the evil-minded head of a corrupt empire, however, she rebels. What follows is a struggle for dominance between the ugly-but-talented Elphaba and the superficial, social-climbing Glinda.

The Twit and the Underdog: Glinda the 
Good Witch (Kristin Chenoweth) and the 
Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba (Idina 
Menzel).
Joan Marcus
The Twit and the Underdog: Glinda the Good Witch (Kristin Chenoweth) and the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba (Idina Menzel).

Details

A musical based on the novel by Gregory Maguire

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

Produced by Marc Platt and Universal Pictures

Through June 29

Tickets are $30-85

512-7770

www.bestofbroadway-sf.com

Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (at Mason), S.F.

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It's a brilliant idea -- for a novel and for a musical -- but they both cloy a little, and they're both overlong.

The musical is slated to open on Broadway this October, on Halloween, so it exploits two Broadway-ready aspects of the novel: first, the Harry Potter thing. A witch college headed by someone called Madame Morrible (in the book she's Madame Blavatsky) and featuring a beloved old goat professor is bound to inspire a whole generation of 12-year-old girls to pester their parents for seats to the show -- and sure enough, on opening night, the orchestra section was populated with well-off professionals and their beautiful daughters.

Then there's the Clueless/Legally Blonde element: Those beautiful daughters need someone to identify with, and it won't be Glinda, because even popular girls think they're ugly or fat compared to some other popular girl. So the show needs a convincing bubblehead to absorb all the jokes about makeup and shoes. Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda fills that role admirably. She has a high-wattage smile, a hard brassy voice, and a huge stage presence that plays tricks with your eyes (she's only 4 feet 11). Most of her songs are entertaining -- especially "Popular," the signature number -- because Chenoweth can flash like a rhinestone and make fun of herself at the same time.

Glinda, then, is the charming villain, and Idina Menzel has the tougher task of playing Elphaba as a lovable, green-skinned underdog. She acts the role well, and looks terrific in Susan Hilferty's dowdy costumes, but Stephen Schwartz's songs for her are mostly uninspired. Menzel starred in Rent and has a separate career as a pop singer -- which must also bring young girls to the theater -- so her voice shouldn't sound as reedy as it did on opening night. Numbers like "What Is This Feeling?" and "I'm Not That Girl" feel labored and conventional, unsure whether they want to be uplifting soft rock or traditional show tunes.

Winnie Holzman's book for the show also fails to develop a few crucial threads of the plot, though Wicked clocks in at roughly three hours. The whole reason for Elphaba's rebellion against the Wizard has to do with the sorry treatment of animals in the land of Oz. Animals talk in this world; in fact, they behave just like people, but they're treated like second-class citizens. Dr. Dillamond, the goat professor (played beautifully by John Horton), says in a gruff throat-clearing voice, "You may have noticed I am the sole animal on the faculty. Token goat, as it were." Except for his tragic case, though, and a strange episode with flying monkeys, we don't see much mistreatment of animals, so Elphaba's rebellion seems a little contrived.

Carole Shelley is a magnificent Madame Morrible, while Norbert Leo Butz is not as cool as he thinks as Fiyero, a popular boy serving as a third-wheel love interest and not much else. Robert Morse does standout work as the Wizard, shuffling onstage in a bow tie and suspenders after a terrifying display of noise and smoke from the massive clockwork wizard head (designed, like the entire set, by Eugene Lee). Elphaba and the Wizard have a sort of defiant-daughter/patriarch moment when he sings a ballad called "Wonderful," about being less wonderful than he seems. It's touching. Morse dances around like a dejected marionette, and the otherwise undistinguished orchestra churns out a wheezing Dixieland tune.

Overall, though, Wicked needs a lot of work. Banishing dead songs from the first act won't be enough, and neither will trimming back some overblown, please-the-kids dance numbers. The plot needs more substance. Right now Wicked is just a typical schoolgirl-rivalry story, almost as bubbly and superficial as Glinda herself.

 
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