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updated: 11/4/2013 6:34 AM

A triumphant return for 'Wicked'

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  • Alison Luff plays Elphaba, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, in Broadway in Chicago's 10th anniversary tour of "Wicked."

      Alison Luff plays Elphaba, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, in Broadway in Chicago's 10th anniversary tour of "Wicked."
    COURTESY OF Joan Marcus

  • Glinda (Jenn Gambatese, right) gives advice to Elphaba (Alison Luff) on how to be "Popular" in the 10th anniversary national tour of "Wicked," playing at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Dec. 21.

      Glinda (Jenn Gambatese, right) gives advice to Elphaba (Alison Luff) on how to be "Popular" in the 10th anniversary national tour of "Wicked," playing at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Dec. 21.
    COURTESY OF Joan Marcus

  • John Davidson ("That's Incredible," "The Happiest Millionaire") stars as The Wizard in "Wicked," playing at the Oriental Theatre.

      John Davidson ("That's Incredible," "The Happiest Millionaire") stars as The Wizard in "Wicked," playing at the Oriental Theatre.
    COURTESY OF Joan Marcus

  • Video: "Wicked" montage

 
 

I owe "Wicked" an apology.

I may have judged too harshly the blockbuster musical about the witches of Oz, whose 10th anniversary national tour opened Friday in Chicago, nearly a decade to the day after "Wicked" opened on Broadway.

The grand, sometimes glorious spectacle -- based on Gregory Maguire's prequel to L. Frank Baum's classic tale -- with its pop-inspired score by composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Pippin," "Godspell") and a droll book Winnie Holzman felt bloated with its myriad plot lines and bombastic ballads. However well-intentioned the musical's portrayal of female friendship may have been, I objected to the depiction of women as vacuous, vindictive and selfish. Understanding the satirical implications, I was irritated nevertheless.

Eight years later, I've mellowed. I'm still not entirely comfortable with the stereotypes. But I appreciate more the evolution of the unlikely friendship between Jenn Gambatese's pretty, superficial and slightly dim Glinda the Good, and Alison Luff's smart, crusading Elphaba the Wicked, whose green skin has made her an outcast in Oz. (In typical teen flick fashion, Elphaba's beauty is revealed when she unbraids her hair and takes off her glasses).

Their relationship plays out like a Lifetime movie: forced to room together at Oz's Shiz University, they come to appreciate their differences, set aside their prejudices and grow emotionally as a result. The terrific duo of Gambatese and Luff -- whose performances exude a warm, youthful spark -- make it credible.

The endearing Gambatese has a lovely, operatic soprano and a flair for comedy. Luff is a vocal powerhouse whose Elphaba is tough, vulnerable and ever-authentic.

Charmer Curt Hansen plays Fiyero, the big-man-on-campus who goes from shallow to substantive. Jaime Rosenstein plays Elphaba's embittered sister Nessarose, who's in love with the kindly munchkin Boq (Jesse JP Johnson). John Davidson (of TV's "That's Incredible") plays the Wizard, a genial, blow-dried despot whose appeal is apparent. Playing his spinmeister Madame Morrible is Kim Zimmer ("Guiding Light"), whose performance suggests she's the real power behind the throne.

Original director Joe Mantello helms the slick, fast-paced production featuring Eugene Lee's original set (whose industrial, cog-and-wheel design underscores the political subtext), Susan Hilferty's costumes, James Lynn Abbott's dance arrangements and Kenneth Posner's murky lighting. Visually, it's all quite arresting.

Thematically, "Wicked" has a lot to say. Not just about friendship but about prejudice, power and political oppression. For all its dazzle, Oz is a totalitarian state that defines "good" as acquiescence and "evil" as resistance, something its citizens -- blinded by more than green neon -- tolerate. It's as overwhelming as the multithread plot, which could use some trimming.

That said, "Wicked" has some fine moments in the irresistible "Popular" and the anthemic Act I closer "Defying Gravity," which unfolds like an arena rock encore. But the real gem, and the show's emotional high point, is the lovely "For Good," in which Glinda and Elphaba acknowledge how they have changed.

I know the feeling.

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