The not-so-wonderful Wicked returns for another round

Wicked Through Dec. 13 State Theatre 1519 Euclid Ave. 216.241.6000 Tickets: $34.50-$130 playhousesquare.org

Wicked, the wonderful progeny of Oz, now in its third lucrative run at PlayhouseSquare, has something in common with the man-eating plant in another musical, The Little Shop of Horrors. And it's not just the color green. Wicked achieved its gigantic bulk first by consuming the MGM film The Wizard of Oz.

While spitting out the charm and musical genius of the film, Wicked retained the art deco green Emerald City, the Freudian terrors, a smidgen of the wry wit and its no-place-like-home wish-fulfillment fantasies.

It also gobbled stacks of female self-empowerment manuals to mix with Gregory Maguire's chilling novel. And then, to intoxicate adolescent girls, it swallowed large amounts of Disney Channel pop anthems. The result is an overpowering aphrodisiac that helped sell the wares of the OzDust Boutique and gained unparalleled success everywhere.

Now for a moot point: Is it good? Sometimes. We have to acknowledge the ingenious backward glance at a film classic most people discover soon after taking their first steps. Key to its success is that novelist Maguire and Wicked book writer Winnie Holzman apparently heard some juicy gossip to which L. Frank Baum, author of the original 1900 Oz book, and MGM weren't privy. As a result, Baum and MGM gave us a hag of a Wicked Witch, out only for revenge and ruby slippers, while Maguire and Holzman knew her as a sensitive feminist with a mission to curtail the Wizard's fascist regime. Unlike the unremitting hostility that the Witch and the good Glinda display toward each other onscreen, we learn in Wicked that the pair started out as college roomies who eventually enhance each other. In this incarnation, the beloved Dorothy is reduced to an interfering shadow.  

All of this is swell. And more than swell are the sets and costumes, every bit as fanciful as their MGM counterparts.

What is not so wonderful is Stephen Schwartz's schizophrenic score, which engenders the show's shrill, unsettled tone. When the songs behave, they advance the story and accentuate the characters' quirks and dilemmas. "Popular," for example, beautifully demonstrates the schism between a perpetual debutante and a green wallflower. But Schwartz's need to be au courant too often defuses the charm and muddies Holzman's smart book.

When a property is this valuable, the powers that be aren't going to send out a second-rate tour. Vocally affecting and emotionally true under her green makeup as Elphaba, Donna Vivino goes past archetype into gravity-defying truth. The rest of the cast members more than earn their Actor's Equity per diems as they spin neurotic glitter into show-biz gold.

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