Ana Gasteyer in Wicked
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Ana Gasteyer in Wicked
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Imagine a nation that uses fear-mongering to cow its people and cynically exploits differences in color and race to demonize its minority citizens. Imagine a government that uses national calamity to impinge upon citizens' rights and portrays opponents as evil and treacherous. Imagine a land of shrinking diversity and expanding intolerance that justifies its actions in the name of a contented, unquestioning majority.

Of course, that sounds like innumerable nations throughout history, from Ancient Egypt to -- well, you fill in the blank. The minority victims might be Jews, Asians, Native Americans, blacks, gays, or talking animals and Munchkins. Those last two groups are targeted in the Land of Oz as realized in Wicked, the much-talked-about Broadway musical that has just begun an open run in Chicago following the national tour's departure for points West.

Arguably, Wicked is the most overtly political musical since The Cradle Will Rock. Indirect references to the United States -- the Wizard, remember, is from the U.S. of A. -- reveal the strong stand of the authors and producers, as do gear-meshing scenic designs (by Eugene Lee) that suggest a society increasingly homogenized through the spread of clockwork industrial technology.

For those who haven't seen the Broadway production, myself included, this one was worth the wait. It features a troupe of actors that's very strong if noticeably on the young side (especially the chorus), giving a revved-up performance in a physically lavish production. The scenic and lighting elements are complete duplicates of the original Broadway wizardry, if you'll pardon the expression. From the vaguely Dickensian costumes (a reference to 19th-century industrial expansion) to the Emerald City's art deco glitter to flying monkeys and soaring witches, this Wicked has all the razzle-dazzle synonymous with a big Broadway show.

In the starring roles, Ana Gasteyer and Kate Reinders as Elphaba and Glinda, the green and white witches (respectively) prove to be a powerful pair with great pipes. Their striking physical contrast places the big-boned, athletic Gasteyer against the petite and graceful Reinders. Hesitant friends at first, they become each other's emotional mirror, remaining so even after circumstances make them reluctant romantic and political rivals.

The leading ladies are supported by local favorites Rondi Reed (a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble) as Madame Morrible and Gene Weygandt as the Wizard. In some ways, Morrible is the show's pivotal or, at least, catalytic character, morphing from a benign Prof. Dumbledore type into the manipulative architect of the Big Lie against Elphaba. Since Wicked isn't about her, the reasons for her volte-face -- power? public recognition? sex with His Ozness? -- aren't well established, but that's not the regally bewigged Reed's fault.

Stephen Schwartz's score has sharper lyrics than music, the latter too repetitively anthem-like to be distinctive. Big numbers such as "Defying Gravity" (Elphaba's Act I closer) and "For Good," the last of several Elphaba-Glinda duets, have been ballyhooed enough to stand out, and they do pack an emotional wallop. But there are other numbers that are just as big, among them "I'm Not That Girl" and "No Good Deed." The few songs that are truly charming stick to the Broadway formula, such as Glinda's "Popular" and the Wizard's song-and-dance, "Wonderful."

Kate Reinders (center) and company in Wicked
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Kate Reinders (center) and company in Wicked
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Still, the music drives a show that short-changes dance in favor of musical staging. Indeed, Wayne Cilento is credited with "musical staging" rather than "choreography," and there's a difference. Many obvious opportunities for break-out dance numbers are ignored; obviously, the decision to integrate "musical staging" into a flowing dramatic whole was taken early and at the highest level by director Joe Mantello and the show's authors and producers.

Fans of Gregory Maguire's novel may criticize the changes made by stage adapter Winnie Holzman. She finds a way to send Elphaba and Fiyero -- the latter is both of the witches' love interest -- into a bittersweet sunset together, and she establishes several reference points to the familiar Wizard of Oz film that are not in the Maguire book. But most theatergoers will find Wicked well worth the big ticket price. It's a whomping good show that puts its politics front-and-center, all wrapped up in a big, entertaining package.