‘Wicked’ remains an enjoyable tale, but it’s time for some updating

“Wicked” is a musical that I want to love much more than I do, but don’t, in part because of cringeworthy plot points which have not aged well.

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Jennafer Newberry (left) as Glinda and Lissa deGuzman as Elphaba are among the cast of “Wicked,” now playing at the Nederlander Theater.

Glinda (Jennafer Newberry, left) and Elphaba (Lissa deGuzman) find their friendship put to the test in “Wicked,” now playing at the Nederlander Theatre.

Joan Marcus

Green girl meets mean girl in the latest iteration of “Wicked,” now playing at the Nederlander Theatre. This “flip the script” reimagining of the witches of Oz arrives just in time for spooky season.

First staged in 2003 and based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, the musical, written by Winnie Holzman, is a mixed bag: In some ways it feels quite timely; in other areas it feels dated. 

Lissa deGuzman plays the nerdy and outspoken Elphaba, the eventual Wicked Witch of the West in all her green glory. In a complete tour de force, deGuzman’s powerful voice and commanding stage presence make her an absolute joy to watch.

We meet Elphaba as a young woman struggling to navigate a world where she’s been cruelly ostracized for the color of her skin. In a classic “odd couple” scenario, she’s matched as a roommate with Galinda (the Regina George of Oz), who eventually becomes Glinda the Good Witch. Jennafer Newberry is a delightful Galinda, and her impeccable soprano voice is a sumptuous treat for vocal connoisseurs. 

‘Wicked’

Wicked review

When: Through Dec. 4

Where: TJames M. Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph St.

Tickets: $59+; (limited number of $25 tickets available through an in-person lottery)

Info: www.BroadwayinChicago.com

Run Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including intermission

The camaraderie between deGuzman and Newberry is palpable, and they’re a fun pair to watch, sparring and sniping across the stage as Elphaba is brutally bullied by, well, everyone. Eventually Galinda’s minuscule conscience catches up with her, and she befriends Elphaba, going against her superficial instincts. Although there were several children in attendance in the audience, I caution parents that this play is not a morality tale for kids, as the duo’s friendship is ultimately more “frenemy” than friend.

The engine of the story is a promising, aggressively political (and somewhat problematic) metaphor about talking animals being forced out of human society and losing their ability to speak. The threat of fascism sweeping Oz spurs Elphaba to action, and she begins to earn her “wicked” moniker, not through evil deeds, but through activism. A short scene with a puppet in a cage strikes more fear in the soul than one would expect.

Unfortunately, Holzman is quickly out of her depth and loses her grip on the satirical bent, resulting in a story that’s less “Animal Farm” and more FarmVille — a mildly entertaining mess of randomly meandering liberal thoughts with little depth. This, my friends, is no “Wiz.” Oz enthusiasts like myself will take note of small inconsistencies between the source material — in particular the Tin Man’s heartbreaking lack of irony. 

“Wicked” is a musical that I want to love much more than I do, but don’t, in part because of cringeworthy plot points which have not aged well. The most notable is the extremely ableist subplot involving Nessarose, Elphaba’s sister and the eventual Wicked Witch of the East. Nessarose (a good performance by Kimberly Immanuel) is in a wheelchair, and her entire storyline is completely written around tragedy and her disability. (The production of an upcoming feature film adaptation recently announced that it was seeking to cast an actor with a disability in the part, which is not the case here.)

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a character with a disability as an integral part of a musical. SPOILER ALERT! On the other hand, when Nessarose is magically granted the ability to walk, the audience was stunned in silence, perhaps recognizing how completely outdated and offensive such a storyline is. Recently, Stephen Sondheim helped to tweak a gender-swapped revival of his hit “Company.” If one of the titans of the genre can revisit his seminal works, why can’t others? 

Outside of the cringe factor, “Wicked” is a fun romp, with beautiful sets, dazzling lighting and some great music in between the more perfunctory songs. “Defying Gravity” is a legitimate showstopper, and watching Elphaba’s rise in a crucible of lights, her cape ominously hovering behind her is truly breathtaking, thanks to the talents of lighting designer Kenneth Posner. And Natalie Venetia Belcon serves up horrible fun as Madame Morrible, the conniving headmistress, angling for greater power. 

A frothy look at the power of propaganda through song and dance, “Wicked” might not deliver much in the way of deeper meaning. It will leave us humming a tune and tapping our toes, yet with a nagging feeling in the back of our heads that perhaps there was something really important that should have been addressed, but never mind, let’s sing that great song again! Perhaps that’s the ultimate takeaway from this musical — that lack of concern is the most wicked feeling of them all. 

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