“Star Wars” fanatics had three prequels to tell the tale of how young Anakin Skywalker became the dastardly Darth Vader.
Is it any wonder “Wizard of Oz” fans would rally around a prologue revealing how the Wicked Witch of the West became so evil?
“Wicked,” the Broadway smash making its District debut at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, fleshes out “The Wizard of Oz’s” back story with all the razzmatazz a musical can muster. It’s more than enough to distract the audience from its sundry flaws.
Based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, “Wicked” reveals the unlikely bond between Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the so-called Wicked Witch of the West.
Here, Elphaba (Stephanie J. Block) is a misunderstood teen with a bad case of emerald skin. She’s an outcast, unlike Glinda (Kendra Kassebaum), who struts across the stage like a head cheerleader and prom queen wrapped in one preening package.
The two meet as teens and, via a simple misunderstanding, become roommates. The polar opposites grow to respect each other even as the forces of fate and witchcraft tear them apart.
Their attachment hinges on the corrupt world of Oz, a place where innocent animals are hunted and the mercurial Wizard of Oz (David Garrison of “Married … With Children” fame) is a second-rate politician on his best day.
Stephen Schwartz, the mind behind “Godspell” and “Pippin,” packs plenty of story into his lyrics — too much at times. Subplots involving a witchy love triangle never jell, and the alienation themes established in the first act disintegrate as the real “Oz” story intersects with “Wicked’s” revisionist tale.
Critics haven’t been as enthusiastic as audiences since the musical opened in 2003, and it’s easy to see some chinks in the production’s shiny armor. Winnie Holtzman’s book, which tweaks the original “Oz” story, stuffs too many themes into the story and meanders when it should be building to a thrilling climax.
Some of the humor in “Wicked” hits home thanks to both “Oz” in-jokes and topical touchstones that take us out of Emerald City — like a line referring to “regime change.” The costumes uniformly astound, particularly that of the Tin Man, whose clanking frame outclasses the stellar film version from a few rows back.
Few could find fault with the stars, notably Miss Kassebaum’s Glinda. The role, originated by the luminous Kristin Chenoweth, could easily slip into caricature. Instead, Miss Kassebaum plays her part with comic precision and a high-pitched voice that amplifies the character’s vanity. Miss Block matches her cohort, belting out the creamy ballad “I’m Not That Girl” while keeping Elphaba’s emotional isolation center stage.
Mr. Garrison doesn’t fare as well, although what his voice lacks in projection is more than made up for by his fleet footwork.
All shows for “Wicked’s” District run are already sold out. EBay shoppers might have to work overtime scavenging for the few remaining tickets, but a show that pulls out as many stops as “Wicked” does is worth it.
WHAT: “Wicked,” music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
WHERE: The Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW
WHEN: Through Jan. 15
TICKETS: $42 to $150 (sold out)