Funny how Wicked grew in 15 years from a fresh spin-off of “The Wizard of Oz” into the seventh longest-running Broadway musical of all time.
I enjoyed it the first time a road company arrived at the Orpheum more than a decade ago, but I skipped the return engagements until Thursday night. Like John Travolta at the Oscars, I couldn’t quite master the name of that Menzel gal who played the original green-skinned witch and never was really smitten with Kristen Chenoweth as the good Glinda.
But the cast now in Omaha sold me on the staying power and sheer joy of this show, perhaps partly because those two lead roles aren’t completely connected to iconic talents, such as Robert Preston’s Music Man or Julie Andrews’ Maria in Sound of Music. In other words, this company’s Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda and Mary Kate Morrissey as Elphaba seemed better than I’d imagined their characters could be.
Add a hunky Jon Robert Hall as Flyero, the love interest for both the blonde and the green witches, and a Wizard, Jason Graae, who’s the essence of an old song-and-dance pro, and all the rest of the production pizazz is just icing on a delicious cake.
The smash windup of Act One with Elphaba both vocally and physically “Defying Gravity,” enhanced by sensational lighting, wows first-timers and returnees alike. But subtler pleasures, such as the Wizard insisting he’s “A Sentimental Man” or kicking up his heels to sing “Wonderful,” make a bigger impact when this show grows on you.
Certainly the entire ensemble, especially those creepy flying monkeys bouncing around on all fours, and the visual spectacle of the scenic design enhance the experience, but the longevity of Wicked’s success must have more to do with the two lead players than any other ingredient. Winnie Holzman, who wrote the book, gives both Glinda and Elphaba dimensions that allow them to escape the easy stereotypes of the ditzy blonde and the angry rebel.
While Ms. Mason’s Glinda wins the most laughs and still manages to be lovable while pushing her popularity, Ms. Morrissey also finds the humor in her hard-edged Elphaba. If the story line is new to you, I won’t try to travel all its twists and turns, but suffice it to say that their quite different personalities and priorities don’t keep them from being friends.
Yes, there are messages about powerful leaders creating threats to unite their followers, and diversity breeding intolerance. It may seem overdone when citizens of Oz jerk back at the sight of Elphaba’s green skin, but the theme comes through less heavy-handed when Dr. Dillamond, the professor who happens to be a goat, suffers from discrimination.
It ignites Elphaba’s sense of injustice, and her mistrust of the Wizard, when she learns that animals are losing their power of speech. That’s just one of many departures from the old Frank Baum story, which is revisited only now and then when witchery transforms someone into a tin man or scarecrow.
If you haven’t found your way to this show, consider that its 15-year run lands it pretty high on a must-see list of pop culture triumphs. You can count on your thumbs the number of Broadway tours that schedule three-week runs the umpteenth time around.
Wicked, a touring Broadway musical presented by Omaha Performing Arts, runs through June 3 at the Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St. in downtown Omaha. It plays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets from $44 to $175 are available by calling 402.345.0606 or by visiting ticketomaha.com.