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At the Opera House, ‘Wicked’ still casts a spell

Lissa deGuzman and Jennafer Newberry excel as enemies-turned-friends Elphaba and Glinda.

Jennafer Newberry and Lissa deGuzman in "Wicked."Joan Marcus

As the opening notes to “Wicked” sounded on Thursday night, a little girl seated in front of me excitedly reached over and clasped her mother’s hand.

There it was, the old “Wicked” magic, undimmed.

That snapshot instant — and the palpable joy the girl evinced throughout the ensuing performance at the Citizens Bank Opera House — told the larger story of this singular musical.

How many similar moments of parent-child bonding have been created by “Wicked” over the past two decades? How many young people have fallen in love with theater, or at least with musical theater, because of “Wicked’s” glorious score and its unstinting celebration of female friendship?


Answers: A lot and a lot.

High stakes are thus built into every performance of “Wicked.” The unwritten terms of the usual contract between performers and audience are unusually exacting ones when it comes to this show.

Still, given the guaranteed bankability of “Wicked,” it was not a given that the current touring production would be as outstanding as it is. Nor was there any guarantee that the tandem of Lissa deGuzman, as Elphaba, and Jennafer Newberry, as Glinda, would prove to be as terrific as they are.

But not a moment of this Joe Mantello-directed “Wicked” feels rote or phoned-in. It’s got a freshness, even urgency, about it, as if doing justice to this musical matters as much to this stellar road company as it does to the young spectators in the seats, many of whom have doubtless devoured the cast album but are seeing the show live for the first time.

“Wicked” is, of course, the back story to “The Wizard of Oz,” based on Gregory Maguire’s novel and featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman. Schwartz’s score still glows and burns, still stirs and soars, as it delivers gem after gem, whether funny (”Popular,” “What Is This Feeling?”), anthemic (”The Wizard and I”), or intimate (”For Good”). Holzman’s choppy book, alas, is decidedly earthbound; it has always been, and remains, the show’s weak point.


At Shiz University, a complicated friendship begins to bloom between two roommates who are antagonists at first: Elphaba, a green-skinned outcast, later to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West; and Galinda, later to be Glinda the Good Witch, a popular and unstoppably perky blonde.

Glinda begins a romance with a dashing and handsome prince as shallow as she is, named Fiyero (an excellent Jordan Litz). Elphaba, too, is smitten with Fiyero, but she is aware, as expressed in her heartbreaking “I’m Not That Girl,” that he’s out of her league and could never be interested in her. Or so she thinks.

Meanwhile, in the background, shadows are gathering over the land of Oz. Bent on establishing a repressive regime, sinister political forces are cracking down on dissent by literally taking away the voices of animals.

Lisa Howard endows Shiz headmistress Madame Morrible with an enjoyably withering hauteur, wringing every ounce of performative juice out of the character. As the Wizard, John Bolton deftly transitions from geniality to something less than Wonderful (Boston theatergoers may fondly recall Bolton from his antic 2013 turn as the dad in “A Christmas Story: The Musical” at the Wang Theatre.)

But any “Wicked” ultimately rises or falls on the strength of its Glinda, and especially its Elphaba. This production struck gold on both counts.


Now, many actresses have played the enemies-turned-friends since Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth originated the roles on Broadway in 2003, with Menzel winning a Tony Award. The challenge is to put an individual stamp on character and performance — a challenge that both deGuzman and Newberry meet splendidly.

From the moment Glinda descends to the stage on a circular, bubble-like conveyance, Newberry is an absolute treat, a comic compound of Billie Burke, Judy Holliday, and Elle Woods.

Yet while Newberry’s Glinda gets a huge kick out of herself, the actress goes beyond that aura of self-delight to nail the poignancy of a queen bee who is surprised to find depths within herself she didn’t know were there.

It’s intriguing to see and hear deGuzman’s quiet, subtle approach to Elphaba. The actress allows Elphaba’s emotional shadings to reveal themselves scene by scene and song by song.

There’s a fine-grained beauty to deGuzman’s voice, though she proves more than capable of cutting loose when required, as with a spectacular rendition of “Defying Gravity,” the quintessential Act One closer and anthem of empowerment.

Elphaba can’t control her powers at first, and is even fearful of them, and part of deGuzman’s accomplishment is the way she captures the slow ripples of discovery as Elphaba begins to come into her own.

This musical doesn’t forget that many of the youngsters in the audience are on a similar journey. That’s the special thing about “Wicked”: It’s always there, waiting to be discovered by another generation.



Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Winnie Holzman. Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire.

Directed by Joe Mantello.

Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston. Through July 24. Tickets start at $53.50. www.broadwayinboston.com

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.