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THEATER REVIEW

‘Wicked’ tough to beat, as is its star

Witchy tale wows crowd at Opera House

Jackie Burns as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, and Chandra Lee Schwartz as Galinda, in “Wicked,’’ at the Boston Opera House. Jackie Burns as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, and Chandra Lee Schwartz as Galinda, in “Wicked,’’ at the Boston Opera House. (Joan Marcus)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 4, 2010

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By now, seven years into the “Wicked’’ phenomenon, it is clear that this revisionist take on “The Wizard of Oz,’’ one of the most potent myths of the 20th century, has established a pretty potent 21st-century myth of its own.

Any doubts on that score were dispelled by the joyous response of the largely female audience to “Wicked’’ at the Boston Opera House. While it’s an uneven production, the reality is that each iteration of this musical rises or falls on the strength of its Elphaba, a.k.a. the Wicked Witch — and in Jackie Burns, this “Wicked’’ boasts an Elphaba who could go broom to broom against Idina Menzel herself. (And her little Tony, too!)

Whether she is belting out a truly stunning version of “Defying Gravity’’ to close the first act or cracking your heart by confessing, brokenly, that “I’m Not That Girl,’’ Burns brings a richness of emotional coloration to the role of the green-skinned outcast who discovers that she has supernatural powers.

The rest of the cast does not match Burns’s level of radiant intensity, and there are some dead spots between the musical numbers.

Chandra Lee Schwartz plays the other key role, Galinda (later Glinda) as a kind of cross between Reese Witherspoon’s Elle in “Legally Blonde’’ and Teri Garr’s Inga in Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein.’’

It is a capable performance, but lacks the nimble wit, spot-on timing, and depth of feeling that Kristin Chenoweth made central to our understanding of the role.

For instance, while Schwartz capers amusingly about the stage during her rendition of “Popular,’’ a larky tune in which Galinda tries to teach Elphaba how to play the coquette, she does not convince us of Galinda’s later anguish when she realizes that her boyfriend, Fiyero (Richard H. Blake), does not love her after all.

As every “Wicked’’ aficionado knows, it is Elphaba who has won Fiyero, and therein lies the secret to the show’s popularity. Girls and young women have responded with particular fervor to this musical because it captures the heartbeat of adolescence.

After all, “Wicked’’ is a fable about a misunderstood misfit with untapped talents who emerges triumphant in the end, a story about cliques, complicated friendships, romantic yearning, the ever-shifting terrain of social status, and that eternal teenage challenge: finding your true self.

That is plenty to chew on and sing about, and “Wicked’’ is least convincing when it tries to be something more than that. As political commentary on the Bush years, it is ham-fisted; as pseudo-philosophical inquiry into who and what are really wicked, it does not go anywhere especially new or thought-provoking.

But as a musical/theatrical confection, and as a celebration of female friendship and loyalty, “Wicked’’ is pretty hard to beat. Based on a 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, the story is a pre-Dorothy prequel to “The Wizard of Oz’’ that tries to get us to see a Hall of Fame villainess, the Wicked Witch of the West, in a new light. Maguire’s novel is filtered through the sensibilities of Winnie Holzman, who wrote the book for the musical and who explored similar coming-of-age issues with her ’90s TV series, “My So-Called Life.’’

Elphaba is shunned by the other students at a Hogwartsian sorcery school called Shiz University, while the prom-queen perky Galinda rules the roost.

Yet from their initial loathing, wittily delineated in a duet called “What Is This Feeling?,’’ Elphaba and Galinda form a bond. However, larger forces are at work that will test that bond.

Abetted by the malevolent Madame Morrible (Randy Danson), the far-from-wonderful Wizard of Oz (Richard Kline) is covertly taking steps to cement his stranglehold on power by robbing the animals of Oz of their power of speech.

Luckily for this “Wicked,’’ Jackie Burns retains full possession of her powers of song, from start to finish.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

WICKED Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

Book by Winnie Holzman

Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire

Directed by Joe Mantello

Sets, Eugene Lee. Lights, Kenneth Posner. Costumes, Susan Hilferty. Sound, Tony Meola.

At: Boston Opera House. Through Oct. 17. Tickets $38-$108, at 1-800-982-2787 or www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com/Boston or www.Ticketmaster.com/Wicked