“Wicked!” and “Awesome!”
That’s the general reaction of Boston audiences to the long-awaited return of “Wicked,” the hit musical about what really went down in the far-from-marvelous Land of Oz. Running now through September 15 at the Boston Opera House, Broadway’s highest grossing show, which hasn’t visited the Hub since 2010, has Munchkins and their moms clamoring to see it again and again.
The musical , which depicts an alternate history of the witches of Oz, has repeatedly broken box office records in Boston and around the world, having been seen by 37 million people (largely those of the female persuasion). You don’t need green spectacles to perceive that the young leads have greater vocal power and stage presence than many a better-known performer could muster.
At the heart of this prequel is the ever-changing friendship and rivalry between two women who meet at the Hogwartian Shiz University. Alison Luff plays the green-skinned, thin-skinned Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West while Jenn Gambatese portrays her blonde-headed, air-headed roomie, who becomes Glinda the Good.
The show was adapted from a best-seller of the same title written by part-time Concord, MA, resident Gregory Maguire. Librettist Winnie Holzman’s stage version is more light-hearted and conventionally romantic than Maguire’s somewhat grim and definitely adult take on the Frank L. Baum classic series. Creator of the lauded TV series “My So-Called Life,” she highlights “Seventeen”-ish issues like body images, dangerous boyfriends, school rivalries, self-esteem, and animal rights. However, Holzman doesn’t shy from the book’s existential reflections on how well-intentioned deeds can turn out to have evil effects.
Nevertheless, this constantly surprising show is far from slavishly PC, even on touchy issues like “diversity.” The character in a wheelchair turns about to be a real rhymes-with-“witch.”
The musical’s continuing popularity is largely due to the fact that it can be appreciated on more than one level: initially as a dazzling, tuneful spectacle, later as an unusually thoughtful meditation on life’s cruel twists and ironies.
“Wicked” newbies are swept away by the tornado of dueling divas, trendy steampunk scenery and costumes, and obvious pop references to Dorothy, Toto, and company. But only fans of the novel will understand why the show is framed by an ominous clock tower, with a face showing XIII o’clock and a red-eyed mechanical dragon on top. Stephen Schwartz’s unusually thoughtful and powerful songs are best appreciated after repeated hearings.
Older audience members will relish the excellent, if campy, supporting work done by three former TV personalities. Clifton Davis, star of such black-themed sitcoms as “Amen” and “That’s My Mama,” does a dignified turn as Dr Dillamond, the professor (who happens to be a goat). Veteran showman John Davidson is well cast as the Wizard, whom audiences know from the get-go is a charlatan and huckster. “Guiding Light” fans will be tickled to see their former fave Kim Zimmer, who played Reva Shayne, flouncing about as the insidious schoolmistress, Madame Morrible.
So “Wicked” fronts up with more than enough spectacle and laughs to enchant the first-time viewer, but its haunting, tangled plot and intelligent lyrics just seem to grow richer and more intricate with each subsequent visit. So slip on your ruby red party shoes and head over to the Opera House.