July 5 2012 12:00 AM

"Wicked" retains its magic at the Wharton Center


Before “Glee” and Gaga, another “freak” named Elphaba embraced her inner monster in “Wicked.” It should be no surprise then that the 2003 Broadway smash still feels contemporary.

Elphaba, an intelligent young woman (one day to be villified as the Wicked Witch of the West), is ostracized for her green skin in a world that values the vacuous blond beauty embodied by her peer, Galinda (a.k.a. Glinda the Good Witch). Throughout, Elphaba defies immense pressure to conform to homogenized unity; ultimately, she endures political demonization. More important, the touring cast embraces the musical like the “Glee” students themselves, with polished flair.

At its core, “Wicked” tells of the unlikely friendship between Elphaba (Christine Dwyer) and Galinda (Jeanna De Waal), its evolutionary transformation and its dramatic consequences for the land of Oz.

Sure, “Wicked” is also a veiled thesis on free speech, white privilege and the politics of prejudice, but these elements typically work to provide a more textured backdrop instead of upstaging the characters.

Both Dwyer and De Waal are invigorating in their respective roles. De Waal finds comic nuance in her broad blond stereotype, particularly when delivering lines of sincere condescension, such as when she offers Elphaba “an assist from me, to be who you´ll be, instead of dreary who you were” in her strongest number, “Popular.” Glinda, as portrayed in “Wicked,” is a spoiled brat whose cunning manipulation reveals the hidden intelligence behind her glittering frocks.

With dry wit, Dwyer delivers insider zingers like, “We can´t all come and go by bubble.” Elphaba´s self-deprecating charm makes her instantly relatable, and her affirmation — “I don´t cause commotion — I am one” — enshrines her as a troublemaking role model. Even with the heavy expectations for the definitive Act I closer, “Defying Gravity,” Dwyer individualizes the song by making it a culmination of Elphaba´s emotional journey up to that point.

While both actresses at times struggle to give their upper-register notes a fuller sound, their voices never detract from the emotional intensity of the songs.

Other strong performances come from Billy Harrigan Tighe as Fiyero, the dashing male crush; Marilyn Caskey as the sniping sorcery professor Madame Morrible; and Paul Kreppel as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz himself. Kreppel shines in his featured number, “Wonderful,”  in which he reveals that well-intentioned yet incompetent leadership can be just as dangerous as malicious intent.

In addition to these obvious swipes at the George W. Bush administration, Winnie Holzman´s book draws from a lush literary pool, including Gregory Maguire´s novel “Wicked,” L. Frank Baum´s original Oz tales and the classic Judy Garland film. Those varied influences also shape Stephen Schwartz´s pop-toned music and lyrics, Eugene Lee´s stunning set and Susan Hilferty´s luminescent costumes.

Lee´s steampunk-styled backdrops made of interlocking gears and clock cogs exponentially enhance Hilferty´s dazzling dresses, which resemble a blend of Lady Gaga´s runway apparel and the Capitol fashions from “The Hunger Games.” Beautifully hued by Kenneth Posner´s lighting design, the set and costumes take the dark, Disneyesque spectacle to the highest level.

On one hand, the “truth” espoused in “Wicked” makes the “The Wizard of Oz” look like a superficial propaganda film: That´s part of the joke. But the real message is friendship and tolerance, and you need not know anything about “The Wizard of Oz” — or “The Wiz” — to appreciate and enjoy this incredible production.


Wharton Center

7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 5; 8 p.m. Friday, July 6; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, July 7; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 8

$38-$93. (A lottery for $25 orchestra seats takes place two and a half hours before each show; payment for lottery seats is cash-only.)

(800) WHARTON, or www.whartoncenter.com