Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore or at your usual Broadway musical. Wicked flouts nearly every rule of hitmaking in the post Andrew Lloyd Webber age. The sets, despite an irrelevant smoke-breathing dragon looming at the top of the curtain, are big but blah. Stephen Schwartz's songs are unmemorable. Splashy, dance-filled production numbers keep threatening to break out but remain elusively somewhere over the rainbow.
No, Wicked works because it has something Broadway musicals, so addicted to facetiousness and camp, have largely given up on: a story that adults can take seriously. Adapted by Winnie Holzman from the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire (whose latest novel, Mirror, Mirror, is a reworking of Snow White), the musical reimagines a children's tale in grownup psychopolitical terms a lot more successfully than, say, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine did for Into the Woods. Elphaba is a misunderstood social reformer who threatens the rulers of Oz; her "wickedness" is their creation, not hers. As the Wizard (Joel Grey) puts it, "The best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy." Imagine: a family musical that might make the Bush Administration squirm.
Which isn't to say Wicked, under Joe Mantello's assured direction, lacks fun. The show gets laughs by playing off famous bits from the movie. ("What's in the punch?" "Lemons and melons and pears." "Oh my!") It also provides a showcase for two fabulous Broadway stars. Kristin Chenoweth, the Kewpie doll who won a Tony for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, is a perfect delight as Glinda. In the tougher role of Elphaba, Idina Menzel is possibly even better, a mix of vulnerability and feminist passion, with a rock voice to raise the roof. With an awful lot of plot to establish, the show drags in spots. But if every musical had a brain, a heart and the courage of Wicked, Broadway really would be a magical place.