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`Wicked' is almost sure to be evergreen

The hit musical makes L.A. its new Oz, with terrific lead performers who enhance the magic.

February 23, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

"Wicked" parked its theatrical sorcery at the Pantages on Wednesday, and don't expect it to vanish in a puff of smoke anytime soon.

The witchcraft is as fresh as it has ever been, thanks to the two splendiferous leads, Eden Espinosa and Megan Hilty, who in highlighting the youthful impetuousness of their roles turn assumptions about good and bad witches on their head.

But an even more impressive feat is the way their harmonious incantations redeem the fun of this familiar blockbuster. Who knew the spell could still work so well?

Evil, as the musical suggests, may be a function of who's labeling it. But talent is less equivocal. Some people got it, and some people don't. And Espinosa, the powerhouse vocalist Elphaba, and Hilty, the comically scintillating Galinda (aka Glinda), have it in spades. These actresses don't depart from the glorious prototypes established by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth on Broadway. But they bring a quality of innocence and sprightly enthusiasm that allows them to make the parts seem completely in sync with their own true selves.

"Wicked" is a phenomenon that keeps growing. But bear in mind that it hasn't exactly been a critics' darling. Complaints about its bloated book and overwrought score stuffed with fulsome anthems are hard to refute. The show, which has struck a notable few as a sign of the art form's decline, might still be breaking box office records in New York, Chicago and London, but let's not forget that it lost the Tony for best musical to the little puppet show that could, "Avenue Q."

That said, audiences have found something enormously enthralling in this irreverent prequel to L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz," adapted by Winnie Holzman from Gregory Maguire's novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," which offers a revisionist look at those wacky characters from Munchkinland and its neighboring towns. The experience is like stepping back into childhood and being reintroduced to one's earliest friends by a puckish yet psychologically forgiving guide. The lesson for all to cherish is that wickedness is made, not born.

Layered into this sympathetic perspective is a political critique of contemporary society, with its glorying of image at the expense of substance, its bullying conformist pressures and its paranoid hostility toward those who for one reason or another don't fit in. It's the "Wizard of Oz" with an Orwellian twist.

The land on the other side of the rainbow has become a fascist police state. Animals are being rounded up as terrorist suspects and rapidly losing not just their ability to speak out in protest but to communicate intelligibly at all. As for the comparatively privileged humans, it's a world where money, cover-girl looks and connections rule. Sound familiar?

Glinda, who will eventually float around in a giant bubble and send that ridiculous Dorothy and "Dodo" skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, has been transformed into a perky blond debutante nightmare. The snarky soul of entitlement, she's a cross between Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde" and Paris Hilton everywhere. Her opening line tells you everything you need to know: "It's good to see me, isn't it? No need to respond -- that was rhetorical."

Her counterpart is Elphaba, the future crone of the more traditional version, who is actually a quite bright and considerate college coed. But her misfortune, like Kermit's, is to have been born green in a world that looks uneasily on that earthly pigmentation.

Much of the comedy, when it isn't gleefully reversing expectations about the inhabitants of Oz, stems from the odd-couple antics of these two witches in training, who have the rotten luck of sharing a room at the university in which hocus-pocus is the most sought-after major. And surely a good portion of the show's appeal lies in the way the freakish and unpopular one gets to discover her worth and feel momentarily beautiful while the pretty, mean one gets to humorously prove that she's not a total monster.

That there are few songs you're likely to find yourself singing on the way home doesn't mean that you won't be roused by them in the moment. Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics are inextricably bound to their story. Not even "Defying Gravity," the number that brings the first act to a thrilling close, would catch on anywhere perhaps outside of "American Idol." But it's a grand showstopper that lets Elphaba roar.

And Espinosa, who hails from Southern California, does so memorably on her broomstick. But what's more remarkable is her refusal to overplay the role. There's not a trace of vulgar showmanship here. Even when she's triumphantly belting, you sense the sensitivity of her long-ostracized character and the hurt lying underneath the transitory joy.

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