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Theater Review: “Wicked” at the Kennedy Center

It’s almost impossible not to enjoy this Broadway mega-hit

The Broadway mega-hit is so popular it crashed the Kennedy Center's Web site when tickets went on sale. Photo by Joan Marcus, image courtesy Kennedy Center
Broadway’s bewitching hit Wicked is flying into the Kennedy Center through August

☆☆☆ stars out of four

In the world of feel-good, anti-cerebral entertainment, Wicked is to musicals what the Harry Potter series is to movies: Simplistic, occasionally frustrating, frequently hammy, and yet possessed with the kind of inexplicable magic that compels you to spend an entire Friday night learning the lyrics to “Defying Gravity” and practicing Patronus Charms. In other words, it’s delightful, and the current production at the Kennedy Center (which, it must be noted, crashed the Kennedy Center’s Web site when tickets first went on sale) is too, compelling even the most cynical among us to look past the hollow political subplots and schlocky jokes and just enjoy what’s essentially a heartfelt paean to being an outsider.

The Broadway mega-hit, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, is based on Gregory Maguire’s book of the same name, which filters The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West. Whatever her ugly black wardrobe and entourage of sinister flying monkeys might have you believe, said Wicked Witch was once Elphaba, a neglected teenager whose father rejected her (green skin is apparently an impediment to paternal bonding), but whose scary exterior belies a tender heart and an enviable ability to perform magic. Dee Roscioli, who has performed Elphaba more times than any other actress, is almost flawless in the role, managing to portray the character’s wounded core with just enough complexity to avoid cliché.

Whatever questions more persistently nitpicky theatergoers might be plagued with (Is Elphaba some kind of magical product of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome? How exactly does Madame Morrible make the career transition from university head to press secretary? How long does it take to get all that green makeup off?) tend to head to the back burner during the show’s biggest musical numbers, which, however schmaltzy, combine an addictive emotional power with great performers in Roscioli and Amanda Jane Cooper (Glinda). And it probably doesn’t hurt that the show’s demographic of tweenage girls undoubtedly empathizes with the key themes: Rejection, heartache, and ostracization for an ugly hat or a dubious move on the dance floor.

Cooper is stellar as the positively obnoxious Glinda, and almost entirely beyond sympathy, although she does appear to let flashes of humanity penetrate her shallow, fame-obsessed exterior every now and again. The ensemble cast is strong, despite the fact that in one Emerald City scene whoever designed their costumes appears to have been working on an homage to Lady Gaga. And since the show has been running forever on Broadway, the set by Eugene Lee is predictably terrific, although it’s hard to understand why some scenes appear to take place inside a giant watch, even if the facade of cogs and other mechanisms is visually striking.

It’s almost impossible not to enjoy this show, with slick, seamless direction from Joe Mantello, spectacular songs, and the aura of a perennial hit. In other words, it’s wicked fun.

Wicked is at the Kennedy Center through August 21; tickets ($37 to $250 but virtually sold out) are available at the Kennedy Center’s Web site.

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