I know what you want to know.
How good is the road company of “Wicked,” the cash-cow musical whose worldwide gross will hit $1 billion while it’s in Kansas City?
The answer: Pretty good. It’s everything you want a national tour of a successful Broadway show to be. The actors are excellent, the visual effects are impressive and Stephen Schwartz’s score at its best allows us to forgive the uninspired melodies that pop up with alarming regularity. The show is yet more evidence that Broadway director Joe Mantello is a shrewd entertainer who knows how to make hit shows.
“Wicked,” based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, takes an imaginative look at the events in Oz before and after the arrival of Dorothy and Toto and seeks to explain the origins of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion and just how the Wicked Witch came to be so wicked.
Turns out she wasn’t wicked at all. She just had an image problem. She was using her supernatural powers to liberate the persecuted animals of Oz, including the flying monkeys. But the Wizard and his cronies used her to manipulate the simple-minded populace because, after all, every enduring leader needs an enemy for his people to fear and loathe.
Indeed, some of the richest comic material in Winnie Holzman’s book is found in her depiction of the politics of Oz, which inevitably reminds us that politics are pretty much the same everywhere.
But it’s also a love story of sorts about two girls who come to realize that they represent flip sides of the same coin.
The show opens just after the Wicked Witch has apparently melted after being doused with water by Dorothy (who, thankfully, is never seen onstage). Glinda the Good arrives in her floating bubble and tells the people below that the chaos of the recent past is over and only good times lie ahead. But the people want to know about Glinda’s one-time friendship with Elphaba, the Wicked Witch. And that leads to that most reliable of narrative devices — the flashback.
We are transported to the past, where we meet the young Glinda and Elphaba as they are forced to be roommates at a college where the faculty includes erudite goats and sorcerers who teach black magic.
Glinda (Katie Rose Clarke) is the golden, popular, supercilious blonde who never saw a mirror she didn’t like, while Elphaba (Carmen Cusack) has supernatural talents she can’t control and is blunt in her opinions. To make matters worse, she is ostracized because of the green skin she was born with.
The show’s emotional core is found in the performances of these two actresses, who work together like a classic comedy team. Clarke’s wildly comic (but impressively controlled) version of Glinda wouldn’t be nearly as funny without the excellent Cusack, whose deadpan asides and sense of stoic isolation make Glinda’s behavior all the more ridiculous.
Clarke, inevitably, gets the most laughs, but Cusack has the dark dramatic role that generates most of the emotional pyrotechnics. The show’s first real poignant moment comes with Cusack’s performance of “I’m Not That Girl,” one of the best pop tunes in the production.
As she watches the handsome Fiyero (Cliffton Hall) woo Glinda, she faces the possibility that she’ll never be the object of a man’s passionate pursuit.
Later, after it turns out Fiyero has really been in love with Elphaba all along, Clarke performs an ironic reprise of the song and delivers another dramatic wallop.
In terms of pure entertainment, the best number in the show is “Popular,” a carefully constructed song with some of Schwartz’s most clever lyrics. The inherently absurd notion of Glinda trying to transform Elphaba into a green version of herself is irresistible, but the song also allows us to empathize with each character’s vulnerability.
Excellent supporting performances are registered by Hall, whose transformation from an airhead to a character of depth isn’t easy to pull off; Lee Wilkof as the Wizard, played as a sort of slaphappy flimflam man modeled on P.T. Barnum; and Alma Cuervo as Madame Morrible, a sorceress with the air of a manipulative diva.
Susan Hilferty’s costumes, idiosyncratic and eye-popping, are a constant source of delight, while Eugene Lee’s scenic design is epic in scale but carefully detailed and made even more impressive by Kenneth Posner’s sophisticated lighting design.
“Wicked” runs through May 25 at the Music Hall. According to the presenter, Broadway Across America, most performances are sold out, although a few tickets might still be available. Call Ticketmaster at 816-931-3330 or go to ticketmaster.com.