If there's no shortage of gushing when it comes to Stephen Schwartz's and Winnie Holzman's "Wicked" and the day the hype runs out ain't coming anytime soon it's because the musical hits the mercurial sweet-spot of both powerful story and the glory of what's possible on the live theater stage.
Do you think film special effects trump live theater every time? Then prepare to be charmed. In fact, you'll feel your chin drop at the sight of the majestic stage sets and props on display, where no detail is deemed too small in the show's relentless pursuit of atmosphere and spectacle.
Don't even like musicals? Just try keeping your heart in your chest as Act I closes, with Elphaba's momentous decision to defy the Wizard as she sings the pulsating strains of "Defying Gravity."
Skeptical that mere actors on stage can deliver all the nuance of a film close-up, even as you sit hundreds of feet away in your theater seat? The greatest pleasure of this touring production of "Wicked," playing through Aug. 26 at Capitol Theatre, is watching the interplay blossom, falter and mature between Alli Mauzey, who is a sheer delight as Glinda, and Nicole Parker, who delivers a passionate, brooding Elphaba.
This would all feel inflated and ponderous if the story itself were even slightly subpar. Buttressing all the marvelous stage architecture on display, thankfully, is a powerful interplay of peer pressure, prejudice and even hints of racism in an immediately recognizable story.
What happens when the ebullient but good-hearted bad girl, enamored of her own beauty and status, makes friends with the geek girl, the outsider ridiculed for her looks but imbued with a sense of principle and justice that looks beyond society's norms? "Wicked" takes that premise then complicates it with all of real life's sticky situations of jealousy, hard choices, and experiments gone horribly wrong.
The genius of "Wicked" is that, in the fashion all great fairy tales, it's carried along by magical events, sights and metaphors to create an allegory that never feels like an allegory.
When Glinda attempts to transform Elphaba's wardrobe by magic wand, the scene says more about the early challenges of friendship than mere magic. When Elphaba takes to the sky to announce her revolt against the Wizard, a sight stupendous enough by itself, we're granted a vision of what it means to irony excused stand on principle.
Genius though it was for Schwartz to build a musical on the dual foundation of Gregory Maquire's novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and by extension L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard Oz, the key to "Wicked" is the Glinda-Elphaba match.
There might be a sourpuss somewhere who could find fault with Mauzey's performance as Glinda. If so, I'd love to hear said sourpuss' suggestions on how the role might be improved. With just the right edge of helium-fueled charm in her voice, Mauzey matched Glinda's guilelessness and ferocity in exact proportion, serving every line and gesture to precise, bubble-gum sweet perfection. Think of tennis pro Roger Federer landing the ball at the whim of his every stroke, and you'll get the idea.
Parker was also impressive as the brooding, green-skinned Elphaba with a heart for animals and their suffering, a keen eye for the abuse of power, and a cynic's despair. About the only fault one might find with the story is that the crux of Elphaba's principled stand relies too much on a pre-packaged, PETA-approved message of animal rights.
Together, most notably in the scenes "Popular" and "One Short Day," Mauzey and Parker create true theater magic. It takes a steely actor's resolve to deliver dialogue that still sounds fresh and spontaneous after scores of road performances. This Glinda and Elphaba make the task look easy.
As fine as the soundtrack is, its pop-music and power-ballad leanings don't effectively complement the show's lavish Victorian-era "steampunk" sets. Set against truly great works of musical theater, for example Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," you could argue that not every element works in tandem the way it could. There are fleeting moments when the ensemble cast feels a bit mechanized, as if they've done it all before.
No matter. "Wicked" is its own species of theater animal. A true blockbuster, it's better loved than overly analyzed; more fun to adore than nitpick. If all goes well the night you see it if you're fortunate enough to have tickets, that is you may well walk out of the theater feeling that, even at the price of your $195 ticket, you still got the entertainment bargain of a lifetime.
A Broadway-sized example of why we go bonkers for live theater. Maybe the ensemble cast felt too rote, but leads Alli Mauzey as Glinda and Nicole Parker as Elphaba by themselves would be worth the price of admission.
When Â» Reviewed Thursday, July 19; continues through Aug. 26. Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 6:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees Saturday, Sunday and Thursday, July 19.
Where Â» Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
Info Â» $125-$195; many shows for the six-week run are sold out; best availability are Sunday shows and shows near the end of the run. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit ArtTix.org. Find more information at http://www.magicspace.net/saltlakecity.
Lottery Â» To enter a nightly drawing for a pair of $25 orchestra-seat tickets, present yourself in person at the theater box office 2 1/2 hours before the show. Winners should be prepared to pay cash.
Running time • Two hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.