And you thought you knew Oz.

I suspect the one thing all Americans have in common, culturally, isn’t the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. It’s The Wizard of Oz. How many times have you heard someone say, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore”? Or describe something as if it suddenly bloomed from black and white to Technicolor? Or, when irate, “Wanna play BALL, Scarecrow?” Because Americans see it for the first time at such a young age, the movie must be grafted to our genetic code.

Maybe this is why, when Wicked opened on Broadway in 2003, most of the New York critics loathed it. The Times called it a “politically indignant deconstruction of L. Frank Baum’s Oz tales”; Variety, “a windy exercise in literary subversion.” Shakespeare you can tinker with. Even the New Testament has an irreverent musical (Jesus Christ Superstar). But The Wizard of Oz? The last sacred cow in the pasture.

Wicked has since played to a baroque number of people (in the millions). It’s been so hyped, when I went to opening night last week I figured nothing could live up to the fanfare. Wrong again, Yellow Brick Road breath. Wicked is wonderful.

“There’s no place like home.” The movie advocates the status quo. It creates the impression that Dorothy, Auntie Em, and the others were born — and should stay — the way they are and that change only happens in tornado-induced nightmares. Gregory Maguire’s novel takes the familiar tale and inserts a surprising backstory. How did the Tin Man lose his heart? The twitchy-tailed lion become so cowardly? The Wicked Witch of the West so wicked? And just what does “wicked” mean?

Maguire’s explanations may not fit your preconceptions, but they dovetail with the story so well that you may find yourself reexamining everything you held dear about Oz. As the musical says, several times, you will be “looking at things another way.”

Many years before Dorothy had to play flip this house, Oz underwent a fall from grace. Before the fall, animals spoke, even taught in schools, and there were no such things as cages. The official version says the Great Drought prompted the change, though insiders (way off the record, since dissent was prohibited) point to the new Wizard. To acquire power, he needed to create a common enemy, a scapegoat. The result: a virus of marginalization infected Oz. Animals became “Other,” as did anyone — like the winged monkeys or the Munchkins losing their rights — who didn’t fit the acceptable mold. Elphaba, ousted at birth for her green skin, says with an alarm worthy of Sinclair Lewis, “It can’t happen here…in Oz.”

Elphaba will become the Wicked Witch of the West with good reason, bless her defiant heart.

Wicked’s loaded with splashy effects, including a large, red-dyed dragon snorting smoke over the proscenium; a silver, bubble-spewing pendulum; and myriad cogs and wheels, like the innards of a watch (when fully lit, Oz resembles the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893). And Stephen Schwartz’s score boasts showstoppers (like the rouser “Defying Gravity”). But the musical works its major wonders in the characters’ interrelations. While Elphaba (the excellent Donna Vivino, who dresses, initially, like Emma Goldman) is adamant, young Glinda (“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”) and Fiyero, the male lead invented by Maguire, come off at first like Ken and Barbie.

Glinda — née Galinda — could be the poster-person for pure entitlement (like today’s youth, she acts as if advertising has assured her for the last 20 years that “you rule,” and she’s taken it to heart). She begins as a black hole of narcissism. Everything exists for her, and when it doesn’t, she’s disturbed: “Something is wrong; I didn’t get my way.”

Multitalented Katie Rose Clark gives the “good witch” an armada of “cute” gestures, ranging from a Charlie’s Angels “hair toss” to spectacular flops on the bed. The musical began, for me, when Galinda decides to teach wallflower/dorm-mate Elphaba how to become “popular.” In effect, it’s a lesson in preferring surface over substance and becoming “Galinda-fied.” The scene isn’t just a royal hoot: it’s a blistering critique of entitled behavior. As Wicked unfolds, the sworn enemies will learn from each other as they negotiate their way through the formative years.

Lenny Wolpe’s Wizard becomes Exhibit A for Glinda’s education. On the surface he’s the kindliest old gent going — “A Sentimental Man,” he sings. Underneath, he’d okay waterboarding without batting an eye. Myra Lucretia Taylor’s Madama Morrible, the Wizard’s ally, is a mass of malapropisms. And Richard H. Blake’s Fiyero does an unsuspected thing: he begins as an almost brain-dead male ingénue. Then he grows up. And that’s part of Wicked’s magic. The movie opts for the status quo. In the musical, people can change — for the better.

Wicked, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire
San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Avenue, downtown
Directed by Joe Mantello; cast: Katie Rose Clarke, Donna Vivino, Richard H. Blake, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Amanda Rose, Lenny Wolpe, Paul Slade Smith, Dominic Giudici, Ben Liebert; scenic design, Eugene Lee; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Tony Meola; music director, Boki Suzuki
Playing through August 30; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at 6:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. 619-570-1100.

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