Even before the curtain rose, the 2014-15 national tour production of “Wicked” promised to uphold the hit musical’s reputation for a dazzling theatrical experience during its engagement at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. The stage curtain itself is an elaborate map of Oz centered around the Emerald City, which is depicted as a cluster of sparkling green lights. But behind that curtain is a production still more fantastically composed of science and magic — with gears, clocks, magical beasts, bubbles and a multitude of sparkling costumes that seem to have inspired one or two of Lady Gaga’s looks.
In short, Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s “Wicked” is a visual spectacle. Like “The Lion King” and other big-budget musical productions, “Wicked” seems to prove that investing in high-cost, innovative sets, props and costumes can contribute positively to the show’s performance and the audience’s experience in the theater. It’s a bit like having a theme park paraded in front of the audience, which seems proper given the otherworldliness of the Ozian setting and story.
“Wicked,” adapted for the stage from the novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire, acts as a prequel to the events in “The Wizard of Oz” story. Instead of starring a country girl from Kansas, the musical focuses on the relationship between the Wicked Witch of the West, named Elphaba (played by standby performer Emmy Raver-Lampman), and Glinda the Good (Chandra Lee Schwartz) — originally Ga-linda — as they come to earn their respective titles. Following the girls from when they first battle it out as college roommates, the show tells the story of their friendship and rivalry as they fight to realize their own dreams and stop Oz from self-destructing.
Raver-Lampman’s performance of Elphaba was smooth and strong throughout, and her voice brought an unusually rich, deep tone to the character’s signature songs, such as “Defying Gravity” and “I’m Not that Girl.” But her portrayal of Elphaba casts the green girl as someone rather dark and despondent, making the character difficult to empathize with or even like. This is a rather strange quirk for the story, because Elphaba’s oddities seem to be designed to connect with the misfit in all of us — particularly those who have just left home for the first time to take on the world on their own.
Schwartz’s Glinda, with her bubbly, self-absorbed personality and spot-on comedic timing, is much easier to relate to, but the overall chemistry between the two characters is sweet and funny enough to propel the story along with gusto. One of the script’s most interesting and greatest strengths is its characterization of the leads through the jokes Elphaba and Glinda make at the expense of one another; they work best together when they oppose each other.
And, strangely fitting for the new school year, their story shares a multitude of college life lessons: namely, that roommates deserve the chance to make more than a first impression, that the right path to take is almost never the easiest, that it’s important to always be honest with yourself and with others and that along the road of life, your dreams will change, and that’s okay.
Though lauded as an excellent show for women because of the strong female leads, “Wicked” is a production that anyone, and likely everyone, will delight in. The show’s technical aspects, story, catchy songs and actors are a wickedly addictive pleasure. Despite its few flaws, most will want to get a taste of the thrills of “Wicked” again and again and again.
“Wicked” is playing at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts until Sept. 14. Tickets are available online.