Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre

“All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman,” the Book of Ecclesiastes declares. And no woman in Judeo-Christian mythology is wickeder than the witch.

When Margaret Hamilton played the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, she embodied an image ingrained in Western consciousness. Hamilton’s black-hearted, green-skinned monster was a far cry from the comically pigtailed, one-eyed sorceress depicted by illustrator W.W. Denslow in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the children’s book by Chicago author L. Frank Baum, published May 15, 1900. Baum described his lighthearted work as a “modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out,” and the witch appears only in a couple of chapters.

But let’s face it: if the only magic lady encountered by Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale when she was transported by cyclone to Oz had been Billie Burke’s airy-fairy Glinda, The Wizard of Oz would not be the classic it is. The MGM musical greatly expands the witch’s presence, and Hamilton’s character is genuinely frightening. But we identify with her too–with her anger at the squeaky-voiced Munchkins and at the child who stumbles into her world and kills her sister (with a house yet). It’s a wicked wish, but we’ve all wanted to cast a spell on those who’ve wronged us. Audiences need villains to externalize the destructive instincts they fear in themselves–villains to be ritually vanquished so everyone else can go back to being good.

Wicked, the Broadway hit that blew into town last week on a hurricane of hype, explores the humanity behind the wicked witch’s fearsome image by revealing her transformation from schoolgirl to sorceress. The high concept in this musical version of the 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West–Gregory Maguire’s marvelous reworking of the Oz myth–is that some people, to paraphrase Shakespeare, have wickedness thrust upon them. The “goodness” of others is what turns Elphaba, the heroine, “wicked.” Born with green skin, she’s an outcast from birth, the unloved daughter of a pious father. Sent away to boarding school to take care of her sister Nessarose–a “tragically beautiful” girl confined to a wheelchair–Elphaba is taunted and ostracized by her classmates. That is, until they get a glimpse of her magic. Like Stephen King’s Carrie, Elphaba is an outcast with mysterious, almost uncontrollable powers (including telekinesis) she barely comprehends. Her skills impress the school’s headmistress, Madame Morrible, who grooms her for apprenticeship to the great and terrible Oz. More important, they win her the admiration of her perky blond roommate, Galinda. Though polar opposites, the girls bond when Galinda teaches Elphaba the tricks of being popular and Elphaba instructs Galinda in magic. For better and for worse, the girls transform each other. Even when their affection turns to rivalry for the attentions of the cute but shallow Winkie prince Fiyero, each learns from the other. In time, Galinda will become Glinda and Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West.

Wicked isn’t a deep show like Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods–another fairy-tale musical–but it has plenty to say. Librettist Winnie Holzman and songwriter Stephen Schwartz have distilled Maguire’s detailed psychological insights into a few simple but resonant themes: the interaction of self-esteem, peer pressure, and sibling rivalry; the value of friendship; the need to respect differences; and the importance of standing up to prejudice and injustice. Wicked succeeds because of its intelligence and because it treats girls’ friendships playfully while taking them seriously. Few shows have even one or two well-developed young female characters, let alone three. (Schwartz’s credits include the score for the cartoon Pocahontas, and Holzman is the creator of My So-Called Life, the well-regarded TV series about an adolescent girl.)

Part of the fun, of course, is keeping track of the spins put on classic characters. We learn how Elphaba (whose name comes from L. Frank Baum’s initials) acquired her trademark black hat (it was a gift from Galinda to her fashion-impaired friend), how she made the Cowardly Lion cowardly (a spell backfired), how a Munchkin named Boq lost his heart to Galinda and became a tin man, how Elphaba’s sister was killed by a falling house, and how Fiyero, whose motto is “life is painless when you’re brainless,” turned into the Scarecrow and became Elphaba’s storybook lover–a safe, sexless straw boy toy.

Director Joe Mantello’s staging is enhanced by wildly fanciful costumes and wigs. Eugene Lee’s set is anchored by a huge clock adorned with a fire-breathing dragon–familiar to readers of Maguire’s book but cool even if you’re not. Wayne Cilento’s choreography is competent but bland, and the flying effects–Elphaba on her broomstick, Galinda on her floating bubble–are downright disappointing. But the show’s strength isn’t its spectacle, it’s the story and heartfelt performances by touring company members Stephanie J. Block (Elphaba), Kendra Kassebaum (Galinda), Jenna Leigh Green (Nessarose), Derrick Williams (Fiyero), and Logan Lipton (Boq).

Baum was wrong when he wrote in the introduction to his novel that “the modern child gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.” Children now as then thrill to what he calls “horrible and blood-curdling incident.” But Wicked does fulfill his wish to eliminate fairy-tale stereotypes. Rather than being melted by a bucket of water, Elphaba learns from the mistakes she makes while clumsily wielding her magic. Wicked’s sympathetic, human, altogether enchanting witch demonstrates that people can be forgiven instead of simply punished for the terrible powers they carry within.

When Goodman Theatre press director Cindy Bandle was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, she stayed on the job, joking to opening-nighters about the wigs she wore after losing her hair. Cindy passed away Monday night, leaving a huge gap in the Chicago theater world. She’d wanted to attend the League of Chicago Theatres gala that night at the Goodman, where she was to receive a special tribute, but a few days earlier she became too weak to get around. Alton Miller, Cindy’s husband, recalls that when they moved here from Washington, D.C., some 25 years ago, he “dragged her kicking and screaming.” Both ended up making invaluable contributions to the city, Alton as press secretary to Mayor Harold Washington and now as a teacher at Columbia College, and Cindy as a key member of the Goodman team during 20 years of tremendous growth. Cindy was the right woman for a demanding gig–tough, smart, fair, drily funny, passionately committed–and she is deeply missed.

When: Through 6/12 (touring cast): Tue 7:30 PM, Wed 2 and 7:30 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM. Open run begins 6/24 (local cast).

Where: Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Price: $25-$85

Info: 312-902-1400

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.