It's easy to see why the show has such a following, despite Stephen Schwartz's unmemorable score. Eye-popping sets, special effects that could dwarf a James Cameron film, a cohesive and sophisticated script by Winnie Holzman, and a pair of diva-worthy roles all conspire to make a feast for the eyes and ears. No wonder adolescents fill the balconies wearing black cloaks, the mere entrance of a character causes deafening applause, and the entire evening has the fervor of a church revival.
Based on the best-selling 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, the musical looks at the characters of The Wizard of Oz from a different perspective, re-imagining the beloved tale from the point of view of Elphaba, who will eventually become the Wicked Witch of the West. The young sorceress suffers racism due to her green skin and eventually becomes an activist to end cruelty to the disenfranchised in Oz. Along the way, she collides with the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion while engaging in a very complex relationship with her school chum, Glinda.
Espinosa (Elphaba) and Hilty (Glinda), both veterans of the show's Broadway cast, do what they can to give organic performances, although they are basically cast and directed to be facsimiles of original Broadway stars Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth. Nevertheless, Espinosa gives a heartfelt portrayal of the rebellious Elphaba, managing to break hearts while dancing at the prep school ball in a ridiculous black hat that earns derision from her classmates and causing arm hairs to be raised when she triumphantly hits those high notes.
With a high-pitched, breathily mannered voice that sounds like an amalgam of Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop, Hilty is flawless as the self-centered but loving Glinda. She masters the comic timing essential to endear this vacuous child to the audience, and her transition into a more compassionate adult leader never feels forced.
Most of the supporting cast also scores well. Carol Kane's dry humor is a perfect fit for the duplicitous Madame Morrible; when the press secretary reveals her true colors, she cuts like a knife. John Rubinstein exudes a Midwestern hominess that dispels the Wizard's fascistic nastiness and gives him a disarming appeal.
Jenna Leigh Green conveys the desperate determination of Elphaba's sister Nessarose, a lilting flower who emerges as a fatal attraction worthy of a house being dropped on her. Only Kristoffer Cusick feels all wrong as the cocky Fiyero, coming off like the class bookworm rather than a blue-blooded prince.
Schwartz's score contains some hummable tunes, such as the chipper "Popular" and the Act I showstopper "Defying Gravity"; but many of the melodies and musical motifs are too pedestrian, especially the chorus numbers. The show's real strength is in Holtzman's nuanced book, which portrays an Orwellian society where being different is literally a crime.
Wicked will touch the hearts of anyone who considers himself or herself to be an outsider. As long as there are actresses who can hit those high notes and speak that crackling prose, this show will remain a cherished part of the theater repertoire, probably well into the next decade.