Broadway San Jose’s ‘Wicked’ leans into heavy-handed ‘Popular’ appeal

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Based on the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel of the same name, “Wicked” premiered in 2003, with the musical’s conceit providing much of its allure: What if “The Wizard of Oz,” but prequel?

Watching “Wicked” a decade and a half after its Broadway debut, it’s safe to say it hasn’t aged perfectly. Perhaps that’s to be expected. There’s some questionable disability politics embodied by the evil, wheelchair-using Wicked Witch of the East, and the musical itself falls prey to the age-old fallacy of teaching a majority-white audience about discrimination based on (green) skin color using a cast that lacks diversity. But hey, it aged better than “Avenue Q,” which bested it for the best musical Tony back in 2004.

If the Broadway San Jose production noted the on-the-nose prescience between its storyline of anti-intellectualism and xenophobia catapulting the rise of a leader who actively lies to his republic while systematically stripping minority groups of their rights, it at least had the mercy to omit any cutesy winks. Instead, it retained a sole emphasis upon relaying the central story: the origin of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West (Mariand Torres), and Glinda the Good Witch (Erin Mackey).

And fuck it — Torres and Mackey’s performances still cause goosebumps, even for those in the audience who have long memorized which sky to look at if they care to find Elphaba (that is, those who had heard “Defying Gravity” and “For Good” a few hundred times since 2003). One of the most vocally and physically demanding roles on Broadway, playing Elphaba requires hitting notes high enough to invite roaring applause. And yet, even though former Elphaba actor Teal Wicks once said of the role, “There is no vocal riff that hasn’t been done,” each of Torres’ numbers felt distinct, even fresh — the passion behind her vocals is as audible and show-stopping as the final notes of “Defying Gravity.”

Mackey’s interpretation of Glinda amped up the dorkier aspects of the character to maximum comedic effect, landing each of the apparent homages to bygone “Saturday Night Live” character Mary Katherine Gallagher’s signature move. The arms-up kick becomes Glinda’s own trademark motion within the show’s lexicon, with each subsequent kick receiving heightened applause. In the role of Fiyero — the boy Elphaba and Glinda both want to kiss (plot) since they’re not allowed to kiss each other (editorialization) — Curt Hansen flaunts his best frat bro impression, which illustrates the character’s douchier traits but decreases his likability overall.

Hansen’s “Dancing Through Life” spotlights Wayne Cilento’s Tony-nominated choreography, with Fiyero’s bravado expressed through large-scale yet fast-paced movements. Director Joe Mantello and Cilento’s staging also dazzles in Torres and Mackey’s moments together, from the inches between their lips amplifying the queer subtext of “What Is This Feeling?” to the beautifully birdlike, surreal motions of the interpretative dance the pair perform down at the Ozdust. While the San Jose stage appears to be smaller than the Gershwin Theatre’s, Cilento’s choreography doesn’t play as a shrunken-down version— though Eugene Lee’s Tony-winning scenic design does lose some of its grandeur, however slightly. Susan Hilferty’s Tony-winning costume design remains stunning, put on full display via the ornamented, emerald outfits of the Ozians during “One Short Day.”

This is all to say, “Wicked” hasn’t run for 16 years for no reason. If you haven’t seen “Wicked,” consider buying tickets or entering the lottery — the costumes, vocal displays and dancing of the show remain awe-inspiring, all this time later. Hell, watching Elphaba fly for the first time is possibly worth the ticket price. But if you have seen it, you can probably sit this tour out — it lacks some of the magic “Wicked” displays at its best.

“Wicked” runs through Sept. 8 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.

Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected].