Two of the producers of the musical Wicked bear the name Platt, which (in German) means flat, and one the name Stone, which (in English) means heavy. Why not also one called Long, although it is too much to ask for one called Boring, all of which apply to the show.
Based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, with a book by Winnie Holzman, this is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, and Oz, these days, bodes ill. This is the story of two young women, Glinda and Elphaba, who become, respectively, the Good Witch of the East and the Wicked Witch of the West. These girls from Oz, despite falling for the same guy and various other contretemps, never quite ceased to be friends from sorcery school on, through many adventures considerably more interesting to themselves than to us. This is also the backstory of how the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow became such, though the Scarecrow’s fate here does not mesh with his subsequent story.
Never mind that, what of a score by Stephen Schwartz, who has clearly lost it? Only one song, “Wonderful,” has a memorable tune, and even that rather trite. The lyrics might as well be spoken rather than sung, except that then we could make out the words, which have at best intermittent sparkle. So maybe the aggressive orchestra is performing a charitable act, and what we are supposed to focus on is really the décor by Eugene Lee, and the somewhat hit-or-miss costumes of Susan Hilferty. The scenery certainly stars. It stretches into the auditorium, with a fire-breathing dragon atop the proscenium arch, and winged monkeys flying over our heads.
The sets may feature a too copious array of cogwheels rolled about in well-stacked towers, with giant clocks not far behind. Who would have thought Oz so industrialized—or have I forgotten things? There is something moving most of the time in sundry directions, but the book clobbers such dependable performers as Carole Shelley, Joel Grey, and Norbert Leo Butz into dramatic stasis in some kind of narrative fog that not even Kenneth Posner’s hyperactive lighting can quite dispel.
As Glinda, Kristin Chenoweth is cute as a button, but rather makes you wish for a zipper. She sings the worthless songs admirably, and speaks her would-be-funny lines with spice, even as the accomplished Idina Menzel brings genuine pathos and edge to Elphaba, but all in vain. “When gray and sere our hair has turned / We shall still revere the lessons learned,” we hear, and note that foliage, not hair, turns sere, though the show is clearly more withered than wicked.
Joe Mantello, a good play director, is not at home in musicals; he doesn’t know how to structure and build a number, and Wayne Cilento’s choreography, dutifully trotting along, is no great help. One can see where the $14 million went, though one cannot applaud their sense of direction.
It’s marvelous when an actor and a role that seemed to be waiting for each other meet in an incandescent embrace. Tovah Feldshuh has impressed in a number of roles, but none has etched itself into her skin and taken over her whole inner being the way that of Mrs. Meir now does in Golda’s Balcony. The excellent makeup (wig by Paul Huntley, the rest by John Caglione Jr.) creates the likeness, and her acting fleshes, indeed souls it out to munificent overflowing. I doubt that even the late Edward Said, chief American advocate of the Palestinians’ cause, could have resisted this performance, which gives so rigorously, tirelessly, and movingly, yet never loses control, never yields to the slightest excess.