TAMPA — Wicked is making its third appearance at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, and it still seems to be drawing well, with top tickets of more than $100. Friday night, the 2,600-seat Morsani Hall was virtually full. Though it is one of the most successful shows ever, Wicked is not loved by everybody — remember, it lost the 2004 Tony Award for best musical to Avenue Q. What makes this musical money machine tick?
We'll always have Oz: Wicked exploits a single bright idea: What happened in Oz before Dorothy dropped in? The associations with The Wizard of Oz are so beguiling that not until the musical bogs down in the second act do you realize it has a few problems. In fact, most of the really clever takes on the L. Frank Baum books and the Judy Garland movie are from the novel upon which the musical was adapted, Gregory Maguire's Wicked. Some of the more lame Ozian connections in the musical — Fiyero becoming the Scarecrow; Boq, the Tin Man — are not in Maguire's novel.
Girl power: The emphasis on the friendship that develops between Elphaba (Donna Vivino) and Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) is the shrewdest contribution by the musical's makers, Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics), Winnie Holzman (book) and director Joe Mantello. The last Elphaba-Glinda duet For Good is emotionally potent: "Because I knew you/I have been changed/For good." Vivino and Chandra Lee Schwartz are appealing interpreters of their iconic characters. In green makeup and pointy black hat, Vivino makes a persuasive outcast, and her performance of Elphy's declaration of self, The Wizard and I, is a knockout. Like other women who have played the Wicked Witch of the West, she has less trouble with the high notes — i.e., Defying Gravity — than with her occasionally muddy lower range in songs like I'm Not That Girl.
Don't skimp on a good thing: The producers keep up the quality of the show, even as it gets a bit long. Wicked is shaping up as the last in a line of pop operas going back to The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. Like those long-running extravaganzas, it is dominated by a dazzling set, by Eugene Lee, with the red-eyed Time Dragon looming over the proscenium.
Rhyme and reason: I like Stephen Schwartz's songwriting — God knows, he paid his dues, with a long dry spell on Broadway between his '70s hits Godspell and Pippin before finally reaching the promised land of Oz — but sometimes his rhymes are just too awful. Exhibit A in Dancing Through Life: "We should go on a spree/And not she/Gee — ." Enough already!
How you know it's a blockbuster: At the online Oz Dust Boutique (wickedthemusicalstore.com) you can buy everything from Elphaba and Glinda earrings to Defy Gravity and Popular perfumes to an eco-friendly "green" Wicked T-shirt.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.