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A 'Wicked' remix of Oz

June 24, 2005|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

Toto, we're not on Broadway anymore.

The not-so-lean -- but very green -- moneymaking machine that is "Wicked" has blown into town riding a cyclone of publicity and advance ticket sales. For those who haven't been following Broadway or living with adolescents, the show is a mega-musical prequel to "The Wizard of Oz." Or as one parent at Wednesday's official opening whispered to a friend: "It's the show my kids have had on repeat in the car stereo for the last six months."

Songwriter Stephen Schwartz's Oz-ified extravaganza, powered by a cast of show-tune specialists and a $14-million budget, opened in fall 2003 and quickly became Broadway's biggest hit since "The Producers." Los Angeles is the second stop of a touring version that's breaking box office records even as lines still stretch down 51st Street for the original production at the gigantic Gershwin Theatre.

Not to be outdone, Southern California has an Oz-like venue that dwarfs that 1,900-seat behemoth: the Pantages in Hollywood, whose 2,700 seats were filled Wednesday night. (And if Ticketmaster is to be believed, almost all these seats are already booked for the rest of the run.)

Those who have paid up in advance will not be disappointed by this "Wicked." The road show approximates most of the Broadway version's gadgetry (minus a few bells and whistles), and the cast does an admirable job of filling the silver shoes of Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda the Good Witch, Joel Grey as the Wonderful Wizard and Tony winner Idina Menzel as Elphaba, a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West.

But what this production, like the original, can't do is put together a cohesive 2 1/2 hours of musical comedy. Despite all the talk onstage of magic and wizardry, "Wicked" (based on a novel by Gregory Maguire) does not have that intangible ability to hold an audience under its spell. There are a few catchy tunes and a number of genuine laughs, but this revisionist trip down the yellow brick road is a long and bumpy ride.

In an upcoming film that documents the musical's development, Schwartz admits during the out-of-town run that "there are things we haven't solved yet." And in fact, much remains unsolved. The second act is still a mess, Wayne Cilento's choreography continues to feel like an afterthought, and a simplistic "Oz is turning fascist" subplot begs for revision.

Given these and other roadblocks, director Joe Mantello steers the proceedings as close as possible to real dramatic territory, but a second viewing makes clear that the biggest problem is Winnie Holzman's lumbering book. Her knack for girl talk and buzzy teen vernacular (honed while writing the TV show "My So-Called Life") gives "Wicked" some adolescent authenticity. Unfortunately, she doesn't have a similar grasp of the structural and narrative ingredients necessary to keep the wheels of musical comedy turning.

Then there is Schwartz's score. Abandoning the tambourine-laden piano jingles of his 1970s hits "Pippin" and "Godspell," the composer-lyricist has recently embraced the power ballad. Since he apparently never met an optimistic slogan he didn't like as a refrain, this is a dangerous development. Be prepared for lots of mellow rock rhythms, dramatic key changes and long-held crescendos (a Celine Dion cover album would seem like a natural fit).

Admittedly, Schwartz's use of the adult-contemporary idiom makes for a smooth, listener-friendly score -- but after two hours, it starts to have the soporific effect of light FM radio.

The exceptions are the rousing Act 1 finale, "Defying Gravity," and the show's bouncy signature song, "Popular." Those who have heard Chenoweth on stage or CD know that her "Pop-you-lar" was a small miracle of Broadway interpretation, each syllable bursting with giddy character revelation. But at the Pantages, Kendra Kassebaum merely sings this song rather than becoming it. Still, she performs it well, and playing the Good Witch as a sort of hyperglycemic cheerleader -- a not inappropriate choice -- she injects "Wicked" with a jolt of energy whenever she's onstage.

Matching Kassebaum in charisma, albeit in a more subdued fashion, is Stephanie J. Block, who brings a quiet intensity to the role of Elphaba. Block does not display the vocal pyrotechnics Menzel did, but she does possess a fine voice with colorful, dark hues. What's more, she ably emotes with her singing -- which, given the banality of many of Elphaba's numbers, makes her character seem more fleshed out than it really is.

Block also generates authentic chemistry with Derrick Williams, a promising young singer whose genial bravado radiates from the stage. The sentimental story line involving Block's Elphaba and Williams' Prince Fiyero is one of the weaker links in the show, but these two gifted performers spark a palpable tension in their brief moments together, even in the schmaltzy duet "As Long as You're Mine."

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