The Green Girl, Glinda, and their friends from Oz have arrived.
"Wicked," the irrepressible Broadway blockbuster introduced in San Francisco in 2003, opened Thursday night at San Jose's Center for the Performing Arts. Eleven years after its world premiere, with numerous revivals under its belt, the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical hardly seems worse for wear. With a bright production and an energized cast, this production came to life with plenty of verve. Not even a last-minute cast change in a principal role could mar the high spirits onstage in this perennial prequel to "The Wizard of Oz."
Presented by Broadway San Jose, Thursday's opening, which marked the show's first appearance in the South Bay, sparkled in all the ways that have made "Wicked" a record-breaking hit. It is directed by Joe Mantello. The eye-catching designs are in place, from the shining green Emerald City and giant clockwork gears of Eugene Lee's sets to the parade of Victorian grunge, glitzy gowns and stylized prep school costumes by Susan Hilferty. And hanging above the stage, presiding over all, is the show's glowering, fire-breathing trademark dragon.
"Wicked," of course, is the story of what happened before Dorothy and Toto touched down in Oz. Based on Gregory Maguire's best-selling novel, Holzman's clever book joins with Schwartz's music and lyrics to focus on the relationship of the two witches -- the Wicked Witch of the West, here called Elphaba, and Glinda the Good. The musical begins when they're both young girls, and follows them as they become college roommates, then best friends, rivals, and sworn enemies.
If the show's creators have never quite managed to resolve its flaws -- despite rewrites, "Wicked" still feels overstuffed, and the second half fails to fulfill the promise of the first -- it remains a fairly engaging theatrical ride, one that a good cast can invest with considerable urgency.
Thursday's cast did just that, with strong performances throughout. The evening's standout was Chandra Lee Schwartz. As Glinda -- the role created in San Francisco by Kristin Chenoweth -- Schwartz projects all of the character's hilariously peppy, self-absorbed mannerisms. She sings with precision ("Popular" was crisply articulated) and spouts Holzman's funny malapropisms at regular intervals. She's also a natural comedian -- simply watching her toss her hair is funny.
But the surprise of Thursday's opening was Emmy Raver-Lampman, who replaced the originally scheduled Emma Hunton as Elphaba.
Raver-Lampman, listed in the program as the role's Standby, stepped up with assurance, bringing the beleaguered green girl to life with grace and agility. Her voice doesn't come across with the laser-beam intensity and brilliant high notes of Idina Menzel, who originated the role. "Defying Gravity," Elphaba's big Act I number, sounded a bit underpowered in Raver-Lampman's performance.
But she produced lithe, lovely tone in her other solos and in duets with Schwartz. She also brought intelligence and an aptly fiery spirit to the role.
There were fine performances in the secondary roles. Nick Adams exudes charisma as Fiyero, the man who turns Glinda and Elphaba into competitors. Jenny Florkowski is a poignant Nessarose. Alison Fraser makes Madame Morrible a formidable presence, and Tom Flynn is a sympathetic Doctor Dillamond. Etai BenShlomo elicits sympathy as the Munchkin Boq, and Tim Kazurinsky brings Vaudevillian flair to his scenes as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The large supporting cast sings lustily and looks splendid in James Lynn Abbott's dance arrangements.
Andrew Graham conducted the orchestra in a dynamic performance, although the sound in the cavernous Center for the Performing Arts occasionally went out of balance.
Still, the show is a visual delight. Watching this production, it's not hard to understand why audiences return to "Wicked" year after year.
By Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, presented by Broadway San Jose
Through: Sept. 14
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose
Tickets: $53.75-$121.70; 866-395-2929, www.broadwaysanjose.com