Wicked, the hit musical about the formative years of the Wicked Witch of the West, has the reputation of being critic-proof. Hurl a Kansas farmhouse full of criticism on top of it and it won't be crushed. Splash buckets of invective upon it and it still refuses to melt.
So, what's a critic to do? One possibility is to compare the company now playing Toronto's Canon Theatre with previous ones - the ensemble from the original Broadway show of 2003, say, or the touring casts that visited Toronto in 2005 and 2006.
Or, if you're a Wicked newcomer like me and that isn't an option, you can try to figure out what makes the show - in the words of one of its songs - so very, very popular.
Well, first off, there's its sympathy-for-the-villain theme. It's difficult to resist the audacious conceit of Gregory Maguire's original novel: Take the nastiest, scariest character in the history of family movies, Margaret Hamilton's cabbage-hued witch in The Wizard of Oz, and recast her as not evil, just misunderstood.
To explain how she came to be demonized, the story takes us back to school, when the witch was simply a gawky girl named Elphaba (Jackie Burns). She was frenemies with the popular blonde Galinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz), later to be that insufferably sweet Glinda the Good. Here, we're smack dab in Winnie Holzman territory. Holzman, who wrote the musical's book, was the creator of the beloved 1990s TV series My So-Called Life, whose angst-y teen characters often felt as if they were green-skinned freaks.
She's in top form here, wittily delineating the complex relationship between bubbly Galinda, who has trouble being taken seriously, and sardonic Elphaba, whose misfit status has given her a strong sense of injustice. Making things more complicated, they're both in love with the same guy - the rich, handsome and, by his own admission, "deeply shallow" Fiyero (Richard H. Blake), who secretly yearns for Elphaba. Although there's a sorceress (Randy Danson) and a talking goat (Steven Skybell) among the teaching staff, this soon begins to feel less like the world of Oz creator L. Frank Baum and more like those of Judy Blume, Gossip Girl and - when Elphaba accidentally discovers her magical powers - Carrie as well.
Then there are the songs, by Stephen Schwartz of Godspell fame, who is equally adept at crafting catchy comic numbers ( Popular) and the kind of power-pop ballads that little girls like to sing in front of their mirrors. The soaring centrepiece of his score is Defying Gravity, a first-act showstopper sung by Burns in this production with the kind of raise-the-roof passion that promises great things in Act 2. Aloft on her newly acquired broomstick, Elphaba is bathed in Kenneth Posner's iridescent lighting - an Over the Rainbow allusion that's just one of the show's copious references to its source material.
But then we get to that second act and that's where Wicked loses me. Elphaba, having discovered that the not-so-wonderful Wizard of Oz (Gene Weygandt) is really a tyrant, rebels and becomes Oz's Public Enemy No. 1. As the story builds toward the events described in the movie, the plot grows dense and Holzman's writing loses its sparkle. Schwartz's songs become, at best, quietly rueful ( Thank Goodness) and, at worst, sticky with Hallmark Card sentiment ( For Good).
On top of that, there's the facile attempt to turn Maguire's revisionist view of Oz into a Bush-era political allegory. The Wizard, played with a folksy blandness by Weygandt, is clearly modelled on George W. and there are references to "regime change" and finding a common enemy. Never mind the double meaning that "Emerald City" acquired during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. I'm sure this is not part of Wicked's enduring appeal - if anything it already dates it.
Wicked must rise or fall on the strength of its two leading performers, and this version doesn't disappoint us in that regard. As Galinda/Glinda, Schwartz does a delightful spoof of blonde ambition that carries echoes of both Reese Witherspoon and the great Madeleine Kahn. Burns is a spirited Elphaba who can also be endearingly nerdy in a Tina Fey way. Both rise to the occasion vocally when their songs demand it.
I appreciated Joe Mantello's production, with its steam-punk décor by Eugene Lee that reminds us of the Oz saga's roots in the Industrial Age and the Susan Hilferty costumes that quote those of the 1939 film. The effects also employ the kind of amusing smoke-and-mirrors that the charlatan Oz is addicted to.
In the end, I could see why so many people love Wicked. But I also came away with a message, courtesy of Glinda: Being popular doesn't necessarily mean being good.
- Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
- Book by Winnie Holzman
- Directed by Joe Mantello
- Starring Jackie Burns, Chandra Lee Schwartz, Richard H. Blake, Randy Danson and Gene Weygandt
- At Canon Theatre in Toronto
Wicked runs until Nov. 28.
Special to The Globe and Mail