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This story contains corrected material, published May 6, 2005.
`It's a bit much, isn't it?" admits the Wizard of Oz in "Wicked," referring to an enormous metallic mask which bears a startling resemblance to Mr. Burns on "The Simpsons." But, he says, "you have to give the people what they want."
"Wicked" is a bit much, and it gives the people what they want. The 2003 musical prequel to L. Frank Baum's "Oz" classics owes an equally large debt to the 1939 MGM musical beloved by millions. A large hit in New York, the show arrives in Chicago a nice fat pre-sold popular success. The national touring company--a very fine one, with some key performances bettering their original Broadway counterparts--continues at the Oriental through June 12.
Later this June, on the same immense set, a Chicago company reopens for an open-ended stay. It will run as long as people want to see a romantic triangle straight out of John Hughes' "Pretty in Pink" plunked down in a menacing fantasy realm with scholastic overtones, a la Harry Potter.
With a heart-on-the-sleeve pop score by Stephen Schwartz, full of grrrl-power anthems and more empowerment lessons than a full season of "Charmed," the underbelly-of-Oz adventure explains how a sympathetic emerald-toned outcast named Elphaba became the Wicked Witch of the West; how she met her sometime-nemesis, sometime-friend Galinda; how Galinda became Glinda the Good; and, among other plot strands, how the wizard became the enemy of all right-thinking animal-rights activists.
The original novel by Gregory Maguire is quite an achievement, dark-toned and compulsively readable. My second encounter with the musical version reveals an adaptation in which Act 1 more or less works, while Act 2 degenerates into tonal and storytelling chaos, a little campy, a little serious, then campy-serious.
The cast makes miraculous sense of the mood swings. As Glinda, the Oz resident most likely to have transferred from New Trier, Kendra Kassebaum works some real comic magic, especially with Schwartz's best tune, "Popular." Stephanie J. Block's Elphaba is even better, relaxed and supple in librettist Winnie Holzman's book scenes, and a more pleasing and modulated vocalist than Idina Menzel was on Broadway. Carol Kane (Madame Morrible) and David Garrison (the wizard) lend seasoned performance chops and a nice snap to the proceedings, which proceed perilously close to the three-hour mark.
Nonetheless, the touring production is sparkly and first-rate. (Text as published at this point has been deleted from this paragraph.)
When: Through June 12 (reopens with Chicago cast June 24)
Where: Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $25-$85 at 312-902-1400