Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe
''People expect this sort of thing, and you have to give people what they want," says the less than wonderful Wizard of Oz in ''Wicked," the musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire's radical retelling of the L. Frank Baum story. And giving the people what they want is what the producers of ''Wicked" do in spades with staging that includes flying monkeys, soaring sopranos, and amusing storytelling.
There is one thing, though, that a musical could use if it's going to rise to the top. That would be good music, of which there's precious little in ''Wicked." While Stephen Schwartz has written a good tune or two in his time, like ''Day by Day" in ''Godspell," the score for ''Wicked" masks its blandness in power balladeering that aims to defy gravity, but keeps falling back to earth. Schwartz's music is like jazz without any blue notes or Sondheim without any off-center digressions. It's the dictionary definition of middle of the road.
That doesn't stop the score from being as crowd-pleasing as everything else in the show -- power ballads are what people raised on ''American Idol" and Andrew Lloyd Webber seem to expect from musicals, and Thursday night's audience couldn't have been happier if Paula Abdul and Sarah Brightman had been present.
Instead they got two quite talented rising Broadway stars, Kendra Kassebaum and Julia Murney, playing the parts of Glinda and Elpheba respectively, the white and green witches. These were the parts made famous by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel and their pairing was such a success that director Joe Mantello doesn't let the road versions stray from the script. Chenoweth is one of a kind, but Kassebaum has all her ditzy mannerisms down. Murney may not hold a note as long as Menzel, but she doesn't need to. She has fine range and a winning presence.
The title comes from the green witch being dubbed the Wicked Witch of the West in the Baum book. Maguire succeeded in telling the story from her point of view, making the novel a smart rumination on good and evil. And ambiguity. As the book says, Elpheba is no devil, but she's no angel either.
Here she is almost completely on the side of the angels, which isn't as big a cop-out as it sounds. It's not unusual for musicals to soften the edges, even in ''My Fair Lady" and ''West Side Story." ''Wicked" isn't in that league. It gets perilously close to ''Les Miserables" territory in sentimentalizing a strong story, but fortunately Schwartz is a better lyricist than composer and Winnie Holzman is an extremely witty book writer.
Holzman, in particular, makes ''Wicked" work by turning Glinda into a flouncy, perky, little miss perfect and Elpheba into a beatnik bewitcher. Toss in some contemporary nose-thumbing at governments keeping the people in order with simple-minded dichotomies of good and evil and a broodingly inventive set by Eugene Lee and you have a production that gives you a general sense of what Maguire was driving at. (And the touring show certainly measures up to the Broadway production.)
On the other hand, Wayne Cilento's musical staging is strictly from the Elaine Benes School of Spastic Choreography. Which gets us back to the music. It hardly inspires any new dance steps. Schwartz has gone from working with Bernstein to working with Disney and it shows. ''Wicked" needs more Gregory Maguire and less Mickey Mouse.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.