Time Out New York
November 6, 2013
By David Cote
Glinda the Good Witch an Evita-like stooge of the fascist Wizard? The Wicked Witch of the West a sexy freedom fighter and role model for unpopular girls? Toto, we're not in Oz anymore. And it's a good thing, too. Wicked, a giddy postmodern riff on the classic children's novel and movie, whips up a cyclone of witty jokes and eye-popping visuals, making a bid for best new musical of the season.
Which is curious when you consider that Stephen Schwartz's score – despite consistently inventive lyrics – is a sugary clutch of Disneyfied pop that evaporates from memory soon after being heard. Here's a musical that works in spite of the music; fortunately, there's more; to Joe Mantello's stellar production than hummable tunes. Loosely based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, Wicked upends received knowledge about the benevolent Wizard and what constitutes goodness, providing an allegorical prequel that grapples, albeit lightly, with ethics, politics and, well, cosmetics. Wicked invents the back story of the witches, beginning with their prickly school days as pompous. Pampered princess Glinda (Chenoweth) and green-skinned outcast Elphaba (Menzel). The action includes Glinda allying herself with the blithely authoritarian Wizard Joel Grey in a graceful, touching turn) but losing her betrothed to Elphaba, who goes on to a momentous, moist showdown with that meddling brat, Dorothy.
Chief among the show's triumphs – besides Winnie Holzman's remarkably deft book, Eugene Lee's jaw-dropping set of gears and vines, and the eclectic costuming by Susan Hilferty – are the female leads. Casting, they say, is 80 percent of a director's work, and Mantello would be a fool to disagree. Simply put, Chenoweth and Menzel are two alluring, powerhouse talents in total control of roles worthy of them. Chenoweth proves again what a brilliant comedian she is (especially in the droll makeover ditty "Popular"), whereas Menzel breaks your heart as the ugly-duckling-turned-avenging-angel. Led by those two, Wicked soars. Divas and romance and thrills: Oh my!