To report that the opening-night audience at the Saenger Theatre found the latest touring production of “Wicked” tremendously satisfying would be the understatement of the year.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a script by Winnie Holzman, the musical adaptation of the megahit novel by Gregory Maguire has become a national phenomenon since it first appeared on Broadway in 2003.
Despite being disparaged by such influential critics as Ben Brantley and Christopher Isherwood, “Wicked” went on to win three Tony Awards, six Drama Desk awards and a Grammy Award for the cast album. It’s become one of the highest-grossing shows of all time.
More than a popular sensation, “Wicked” is a rite of passage for many young theatergoers, particularly teenage girls.
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past dozen years, you know the story. But please don’t call it a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I get a little testy when people say, ‘It’s a retelling of Oz,’” Maguire told The New York Times in 2003. “It’s not a retelling of Oz. It’s another story of another life.”
Let’s call it a reimagining of the L. Frank Baum classic “The Wizard of Oz,” focusing on the backstory of the two famous witches, Glinda, the good witch (a very funny and bright Amanda Jane Cooper), and the newly discovered name of Elphaba (a richly voiced Emily Koch), the nefarious Wicked Witch of the West.
Elphaba, the green-skinned girl, full of anger, angst and intelligence, finds herself mocked and reviled at wizardry school until, after a bumpy start, she becomes fast friends with the sassy, cute and lovably overindulged Glinda.
Thus begins a BFF relationship to last the ages and to bring us to its tear-jerking conclusion.
Is this production beginning to show signs of its age? Yes and no.
It still boasts the power of blockbuster musical numbers, but the steampunk designs by Eugene Lee (sets) and Susan Hilferty (costumes) have lost the boldness of their originality.
The music, however, endures.
It is impossible not to be impressed, if not moved, by such numbers as “Defying Gravity” (which spectacularly closes Act I) or “I’m Not That Girl,” the simple, most honest song of the evening, or “For Good,” which brings the house down in rip-roaring fashion. In contrast to the recent Saenger presentation of “Cabaret,” where the cast appeared free within a certain, strict interpretation, with “Wicked” things seem a bit by the numbers, as if you’re viewing a strict replica of a 2003 Broadway production.
Does that matter? Not judging by the standing ovation from the audience.
Much of the show has a tongue-in-check awareness of itself as a bit of populist dreck. As the Wizard himself proclaims, “I know it’s a bit much, but it’s what people want, and you have to give people what they want!”
That couldn’t prove truer. But as the song “Popular” proclaims: Being popular doesn’t necessarily mean being good.
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor of theater from Indiana University and a member of the American Theater Critics Association.