"Wicked" at the Mahalia Jackson Theater

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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.)

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