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Theater review: 'Wicked': Witch tale's a heady brew

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SAN FRANCISCO - "Wicked," a musical that was a surprise hit on Broadway, is triumphantly back where it started.

Called "the untold story of the witches of Oz," "Wicked" had its pre-Broadway world premiere here at the Orpheum Theatre in September 2003. The play then had a hugely successful run in New York, including winning 14 major awards (among them, three Tonys), and helped Broadway score a bullish summer box office season this year. Now the lush production has spun off its first national tour, which plays San Francisco for the next four weeks.

Based on Gregory Maguire's subtle allegorical novel, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, "Wicked" goes where few mainstream musicals dare to tread these days. The complex and unlikely relationships among the characters and the story's creative reframing of the iconic "Wizard of Oz" mythology push "Wicked" into the rarefied air of intelligent entertainment that can truly satisfy the entire family without condescension.

OAS_AD('Button20'); While based on a story of fantasy (special powers, magic spells, talking animals and the like), characters continually develop in honest, realistic ways, and the narrative twists and turns toward a satisfying conclusion. There are plenty of special effects and a signature production number closing out the first act, yet it's the human contradictions and emotions embodied in the story that command our attention.

The only element of the production that isn't consistently first-rate is Schwartz's songs. The tunes are a mixed bag, with several bland and forgettable power ballads included with his more distinctive and finely crafted songs. Most of the music rides on the same middling tempos, and little stands out melodically.

Director Joe Mantello pushes a kinetic pace while never letting the focus drift away from his two captivating lead performers, Eden Espinosa and Kendra Kassebaum. Espinosa plays the green-hued Elphaba, who eventually becomes the notorious Wicked Witch of the West, and Kassebaum plays Glinda the Good Witch.

Sailing down onto the stage on a bubble-spewing swing, Kassebaum's Glinda initially seems to be a blond, glitzy-gaudy human bubble. Espinosa's Elphaba, in contrast, is a green-skinned freak of nature, moody and misunderstood. Both actresses have brilliant voices, though with strategically different qualities. Kassebaum has a bright, ringing tone, while Espinosa has a deeper, darker-burnished effect.

Both can belt. But even better, they can act while singing, which particularly aids the weaker songs.

Maguire's story begins with a moral about understanding and appreciating differences among people and then becomes a cautionary tale of people in power creating monster villains to distract from their own misdeeds. In the course of the story, he shows that what is a monster to some is a humble, self-sacrificing hero to others.

Carol Kane adds her particular presence as Madame Morrible, an ambitious schoolmistress, and David Garrison charms as a rather pragmatic Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Derrick Williams adds a seductive touch as Fiyero, the handsome young man both Glinda and Elphaba are attracted to.

But just when the story feels like it will be just another competition between two women for a man, everything shifts. The details of the shifting represent the genius of this play, and to say anything else would spoil the great fun of watching it all unfold.

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