A BIT MUCH: But, hey, when it comes to Wicked, nothing succeeds like excess.
"It's a bit much," acknowledges the Wizard of Oz, emerging from under the neon-blue-eyed Lion King mask behind which he does his heavily amplified business in the Broadway blockbuster Wicked (at the Opera House through October 17). "But," he adds, "people expect this sort of thing, and you have to give people what they want." Like the Wizard's accouterment, Wicked, playing Boston for the third time, is a bit much, but it certainly gives people what they want, serving up enough sensory overload, scenic choreography, airborne acrobatics, and dry-ice smoke to turn L. Frank Baum into Cirque du Soleil. The perpetrators definitely believe that loud is more, as well as that more is more, and you have to hand it to them: the $2 billion grosser based on Gregory Maguire's infinitely subtler 1995 prequel to The Wizard of Oz has proved at the box office that Oscar Wilde wasn't just being epigrammatic when he observed that nothing succeeds like excess.
It helps that the excess is built on Maguire's ingenious piggyback fable about the ambiguity of evil and hung on Tony-winning set designer Eugene Lee's spectacular evocation of Maguire's Clock of the Time Dragon. Glinda even descends and ascends in a round clockwork reminiscent of her favored mode of travel in the iconic 1939 film: the bubble! Adding more buoyancy to the oft-heavy-handed proceedings are My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman's libretto, which cuts the gooeyness of its girl bonding with droll Oz illusions, and the whimsical mash-up of oddly shaped costumes by Susan Hilferty. (An apt title for the show, were it not already taken, might be The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.)
Wicked itself is a machine on the lines of the time-dragon clock, the performances carefully tuned to Joe Mantello's direction of the original cast, from smug Glinda's restless-leg-syndrome perkiness to reticent sorceress Elphaba's angular, crouching-tiger intensity. In Maguire's conceit, the girl in pink and the girl who's green meet at "Dear Old Shiz" University, where they instantly loathe each other, become fast friends, fall out over a boy, grow up to become Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West, and follow their interwoven, politically spun destinies toward the melting dénouement we all know and love.
In the current touring production, Jackie Burns is a soulful, rip-roaring Elphaba, whether "Defying Gravity" as if she were a Quidditch player out of Harry Potter (whose magic academy Wicked anticipates) or applying her pretty pipes to composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz's less anthemic efforts. And adept comedian Chandra Lee Schwartz, channeling Elle Woods as Glinda, boasts a sweet soprano when it's not subject to amplification that lives up to the show's title.
Casting a less strident spell is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through October 2), William Finn & Rachel Sheinkin's hilariously quirky riff on the high-pressure middle-school rite of the title. This is the most intimate staging of this Tony winner (for Sheinkin's book) that I've seen — which may account for a pull on the heartstrings equal to its tickle of the funny bone. Lyric honcho Spiro Veloudos has drawn on his adjunct-professor connection to Emerson College, hiring not only head-of-the-musical-theater program Stephen Terrell to direct but also several recent graduates, who prove convincingly young as the adolescent orthographers vying, imploding, and exploding before us.