by Kevin Allman
The Broadway Across America tours that come to New Orleans vary wildly in quality, but Wicked (at the Mahalia Jackson Theater through Apr. 11) has what they all should have: an accessible, poppy score, plenty of in-jokes, some superlative stagecraft and, of course, flying monkeys.
Based on the Gregory Maguire novel, Wicked is a reimagining of The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the good and bad witches in their days as conjuring schoolgirls and long before Dorothy showed up. Here, Glinda the Good Witch is an insipid but popular cheerleader type; Ephalba (the Wicked Witch) is a smart, misunderstood outcast with green skin, a girl in the shadow of her prettier sister, who nonetheless moons after the most handsome boy in school ... in other words, the perfect stand-in for any insecure high school sophomore. (We can't all travel by bubble, she snaps at Glinda.)
Standby Merideth Kaye Clark turned out to be a Broadway-ready Ephalba (the many teen girls in the matinee audience went crazy for her), while the equally good Chandra Lee Schwartz was a legally-blonde Glinda. (As the school's headmistress, Randy Danson was a dead ringer for New Orleans' own Becky Allen.)
The rest of the ensemble ranged from good to very good, but Wicked is carried on the shoulders of its witches and even with a nearly three-hour running time, when Clark and Schwartz were singing, spellcasting and soaring, the show soared with them. Most seats for the three-week run are gone, but $25 rush tickets are sold by lottery at the theater two-and-a-half hours before every performance. It's worth the chance.
(Wicked was originally scheduled as part of the 2005-2006 Broadway Across America series, which was eliminated after Hurricane Katrina; the other high-profile show from that lost season, The Lion King, will be coming to the Mahalia Jackson Theater in late 2011 or early 2012.)