Kendra Kassebaum in Wicked
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Kendra Kassebaum in Wicked
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
A few years back, when The Producers was breaking records and reaping tons of Tony Awards, no one would have believed that a tragic political fable would be the source material of Broadway's next blockbuster. Add to this the fact that the book of the musical in question, by TV scribe Winnie Holzman, would outshine its score by beloved theater composer Stephen Schwartz -- not to mention that the show's heroine would be the younger version of one of filmdom's most despised villains -- and people would surely have questioned the mental stability of anyone who suggested such an implausible scenario.

But this is exactly what occurred with Wicked, the national tour of which arrived in Philadelphia last week with some significant cast changes since its earlier stops. Unfortunately, visitors to the Friday night performance saw two understudies instead of new stars Julia Murney as Elphaba and Sebastian Arcellus as Fiyero. But even with these substitutions -- one fine, the other not so fine -- the show, based on Gregory Maguire's novel and directed by Joe Mantello, is the rare musical that is both substantive and entertaining.

After a prologue, it begins with the arrival of the green-skinned Elphaba and her beautiful, wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Jennifer Waldman) at college. Although Elphaba is shunned by the other students due to her unique coloration, her sorcery talents are noticed by the university's headmistress, Madame Morrible (the wonderful Alma Cuervo). But Morrible's appreciation for the new girl is not shared by Elphaba's roommate, Glinda (Kendra Kassebaum), a stunning blonde beauty who's far more interested in boys than books. Like the other students, Glinda initially treats Elphaba with disdain; but, as time passes, she and her beau Fiyero warm to the lonely but good-hearted girl.

Elphaba is troubled when she discovers that one of her professors, Doctor Dillamond (an effective Timothy Britten Parker), is being silenced by the administration for the simple fact that he is a goat. Like the other animals in Oz, he is quickly losing the power of speech -- and, throughout the land, there is an uncomfortable trend towards uniformity in all aspects of life. Suddenly, an opportunity arises for Elphaba to meet the powerful Wizard of Oz (P.J. Benjamin), and soon Elphaba and Glinda are dashing off to Emerald City to plead her case. This is where the story of how Elphaba eventually became known as the Wicked Witch of the West begins in earnest, taking up all of Act II.

Kassebaum is a delight as Glinda; she is filled with vitality and charm, and her buoyant performance is exactly what the role calls for. "I can't see why you can't teach us history instead of always harping on the past," she complains to Professor Dillamond with just the right note of bored exasperation. And her surprisingly emotional second act reprise of "I'm Not That Girl," first sung by Elphaba in Act I, effectively communicates Glinda's transformation from a vacuous teenager to a sensitive and caring young woman.

Maria Eberline, Murney's understudy, more than holds her own in the pivotal role of Elphaba, showing superb vocal control in "What Is This Feeling?" and the big, first-act closer "Defying Gravity." Clifton Hall is not as successful as Fiyero, and his weak rendition of "Dancing Through Life" was the evening's sole sour note. The rest of the large cast is uniformly strong.

Unlike some other national tours, Wicked has exceptionally high production values. Susan Hilferty's costumes and Eugene Lee's sets, which include a giant dragon looming overhead at the front of the stage, are colorfully attractive, while Kenneth Posner's explosive lighting is a show unto itself. Still, when the curtain falls on Wicked, one is left curiously unsatisfied. The show's happy ending feels manipulative and forced, as if Schwartz and Holzman had suddenly changed the rules on us at the very end of the game.