Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s imaginative musical “Wicked” creates a satisfying backstory to MGM’s beloved 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Who knew that the Wicked Witch (named Elphaba) and Glinda the Good Witch were once BFFs? Or that they even once loved the same guy? “Wicked” delightfully clues us in to all that and more with humorous charm, fabulous sets and plenty of talent.
Schwartz and Holzman based “Wicked,” first performed in 2003, on a 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, itself based on Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which had inspired the movie. “Wicked” may also remind you of the first Harry Potter movie and Legally Blonde, both released in 2001.
Despite these influences, “Wicked” is decidedly its own thing, the story both familiar and inventive. At its heart is a relationship that begins in loathing but slowly develops into friendship between Elphaba—shunned all her life for being green—and the very admired, blonde and “good” Glinda. The two performers portraying them are the best part of this production.
Allison Bailey plays Glinda—who starts out as Galinda at school—as girlishly charming to the nth degree. She consciously cultivates her every word, movement and pretty outfit to appeal. And Bailey capture’s Glinda’s high-pitched voice from the Wizard of Oz film in her singing as well. Bailey shines brightest in the cute and catchy “Popular,” during which she gives reluctant college roommate Elphaba a makeover.
Elphaba, as embodied by the equally talented Talia Suskauer, couldn’t be more opposite. Not only green as the elixir her mother drinks before she is born, but gangly and acerbic, Elphaba has suffered years of rejection, starting with her own father. Though she possesses latent magical powers (and a cackling laugh), Elphaba’s real gift seems to be that she can see right through everyone’s pretentions—and doesn’t hesitate to call them on it.
That talent comes in handy when Elphaba meets her hero, the Wizard (Cleavant Derricks), but eventually realizes she is the one with true power, which Suskauer projects through her formidably strong singing voice in “No Good Deed.”
By then, Elphaba and Glinda have grown into a good team, balancing each other’s strengths and (barely) even making it through Glinda’s boyfriend Fiyero (Jordan Litz) falling for Elphaba, with both singing “I’m Not That Girl” about him at different points.
Surrounding this main story are subplots stemming from abuses of power, including oppression of the munchkins because of misguided love and the insidious and mysterious squelching of animal voices throughout Oz, including that of Dr. Dillamond (Clifton Davis), a kind goat who teaches at the girls’ university.
These abuses add dark weight to an otherwise light plot, though they are not fully developed. We only meet one munchkin, Boq (DJ Plunkett), who seems easily manipulated by both Glinda and Elphaba’s wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Amanda Fallon Smith). And we never find out what happens to the voiceless animals, including poor Dr. Dillamond.
Nessarose’s character is also perhaps more problematic now than 20 years ago in how she is portrayed as bitter from being in a wheelchair—singing about how she and Boq “deserve each other” for their perceived handicaps—and feels “rescued” when Elphaba allows her to walk with enchanted shoes.
Despite these peccadilloes, “Wicked” as directed by Joe Mantello is well paced and enjoyable—not only because of its talented ensemble cast but transporting sets (Eugene Lee). A menacing red-eyed dragon hovers over the stage and the Wizard speaks through an equally intimidating giant head. Emerald City is brightly lit green, its sunglass-wearing denizens clad in whimsical costumes (Susan Hilferty). Lighting (Kenneth Posner), smoke effects (Chic Silber) and projections (Elaine J. McCarthy) provide thrills in a second-act war—including Dorothy, who has by then arrived on the scene.
Engaging, humorous and full of clever details, “Wicked” will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Through a plethora of songs, one-liners and physical gags instead of deep dialogue, the story still manages to explore what “good” and “wicked” mean in human terms—perhaps providing as timely a moral lesson today as 20 years ago.
“Wicked” continues through March 6 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets start at $44.75 for performances Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at SCFTA.org or by calling the box office at (714) 556-2787. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing is required.