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Stage Review

Fun, intelligent 'Wicked' brings new relevance to an old story

Victoria Matlock (left) as Elphaba and Christina DeCicco as Glinda in 'Wicked.' Victoria Matlock (left) as Elphaba and Christina DeCicco as Glinda in "Wicked." (joan marcus)

Ding, dong, the witch is back. "Wicked" opened its second Boston visit Thursday night at the Opera House, and, as we like to say around here, it's still wicked good.

As Gregory Maguire, the author of the wickedly intelligent novel on which the wildly popular musical is based, noted in a Globe op-ed Thursday, the themes that occupied him a dozen years ago have only grown more relevant since then. Maguire's simple, brilliant idea - what if the Wicked Witch wasn't really the wicked one? - resonates in new and scary ways with our national obsession with evildoers, and our national difficulty in discerning just who the evildoers are.

Not that the musical hits these themes particularly hard - it's still, unless you're listening closely, all about "Popular." But part of what makes its spectacle so satisfying is that it's not just spectacular. Both Winnie Holzman's book and Stephen Schwartz's songs have plenty of fun with "The Wizard of Oz," but the fun also has a point. "Good" and "wicked" will never sound so simple again once you've heard them twine around each other in a dozen surprising ways.

But you're wondering how the latest green girl handles a broom. As Elphaba, Victoria Matlock has a powerful presence and a voice that can match it - especially when she lets loose for the big, showy notes at the end of "Defying Gravity" or "The Wizard and I." Too often, though, she seems to be holding herself back to save up power for those final knockouts; especially in the higher registers, her voice can take on an unpleasantly constricted quality. That works well in comic moments - it gives her Elphaba a witchily snide sound - but it's too constrained to convey deeper emotion.

It doesn't help that Cliffton Hall's Fiyero is a bland, laid-back dude. Say what you will about the goopy power ballad "As Long As You're Mine," but it should at least generate some heat. With Hall's low-key drawl and Matlock's "American Idol" gaspiness, it's barely lukewarm.

The singer to listen to is Christina DeCicco, whose nuanced vocal technique creates a wonderfully layered Glinda. She has moments of frightening perkiness in the Kristin Chenoweth mode - especially in that anthem of Perky Nation, "Popular" - but she turns the twinkles on and off like a taser. Underneath is a chillingly powerful woman, and the combination is fascinating.

This production also delivers the sheer theatrical delight of Eugene Lee's intricate, inventive set and Susan Hilferty's magnificently wacky costumes. If you're seeing it for the first time, you'll be wowed by the imaginative effects and seemingly effortless craft; what's more striking on subsequent viewings is the expert coherence of the design. It's glittery, yes, but it also has a real and solid gleam.

This may not be perfectly "Wicked." But it's certainly perfectly good.

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Musical with book by Winnie Holzman, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire

Directed by: Joe Mantello. Musical staging, Wayne Cilento. Sets, Eugene Lee. Costumes, Susan Hilferty. Lights, Kenneth Posner. Sound, Tony Meola.

Presented by: Marc Platt, Universal Pictures, The Araca Group, Jon B. Platt, and David Stone.

At: Opera House, through Nov. 11. Tickets, $35-$132.50. 617-931-2787,