Like the bony, broom-riding icon of Oz it aims to exonerate, Wicked is neither all good nor all bad. But unlike her, it doesn’t cast much of a spell. Gregory Maguire’s 1995 meta-fictional prequel to The Wizard of Oz, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, is a Tolkien-esque vision of an imaginatively detailed world: an Oz rife with religious and political strife in which the title character is a lime-toned PETA activist turned accountably bitter. The 2003 Broadway smash based upon it, which has set down in Boston for the first time (at the Opera House through May 14) with all the subtlety of Dorothy’s cyclone-blown house on the Wicked Witch’s sister, is an unlikely tale of girl bonding in which the meltable miscreant of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel is a bookish outcast with a Hogwartian knack for magic and Glinda is Tori Spelling. The book, by My So-Called Life writer Winnie Holzman, is alternately campy and sentimental. And Stephen Schwartz’s music, which meanders loudly between Into the Woods’ territory and Les Misérables’, is uninteresting but for the amusement of trying to detect the opening notes of Somewhere over the Rainbow, which the composer has altered rhythmically and inserted like auditory Ninas in a Hirschfield cartoon. It must be admitted, however, that this show has been as eagerly awaited as the second coming of Judy Garland and that the opening-night audience behaved as if such a visitation were indeed taking place.
The real star of Wicked is set designer Eugene Lee, who had the bright idea of setting the whole show in the innards of the book’s prophetical Clock of the Time Dragon, so that, following the death of the Wicked Witch of the West (after which the rest of the musical is a flashback), a smug, blonde, and begowned Glinda can descend in a round clockwork reminiscent of her bubble in the 1939 film. But the dragon itself, poised above the proscenium, wings aloft and eyes flashing electronically, is more indicative of the heavy-handed spectacle in which Wicked specializes, spectacle that includes dry-ice smoke, flying monkeys with flag-like wings, and a first-act finale, the anthemic “Defying Gravity,” in which misunderstood heroine Elphaba (a vanity-plate abbreviation of L. Frank Baum), embracing her witchliness, ascends into a collision of crossbeams. As the Wizard himself says of the thundering, Julie Taymor–esque bronze head that is his mouthpiece, “It’s a bit much, but you have to give people what they like.”
Whereas the book was a contemplation of good and evil disguised as a biography of passionate activist Elphaba, the musical gives equal shrift to the girls who will become the vilified WWW and that angel of PR, Glinda the Good Witch. Shunned Elphaba and vain Glinda are thrown together at Shiz University, where, after a mutually repelled face-off on “What Is This Feeling,” they become friends. Glinda goes so far as to attempt a dorm-room makeover in which Elphaba is encouraged to let her braid down and adorn her scraggly, green-hued beauty with a big pink flower — all of which makes her look like a young woman designed by Lily Pulitzer. But it’s a look no less eccentric than that of her fellow Ozians, whom Susan Hilferty (who won a Tony for her costumes) has done up in a loopily original hodge-podge of periods, headgear, bustles, and ruffles. Some of them resemble 19th-century Teletubbies.