Not so Wicked

WICKED music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman, directed by Joe Mantello, with Stephanie J. Block,.

WICKED music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman, directed by Joe Mantello, with Stephanie J. Block, Kendra Kassebaum, Carol Kane and David Garrison. Presented by Platt/University Pictures/Araca Group and others at the Canon Theatre (244 Victoria). Runs to April 24, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $26-$110. 416-872-1212. Rating: NN

Like it or not, today’s musicals need a familiar hook to succeed: a Disney cartoon, some ABBA or Billy Joel songs, a three-part fantasy epic.

Wicked has enough hooks to open a bait and tackle shop.

Not only is it based on Gregory Maguire ‘s novel, a prequel to The Wizard Of Oz that explains how the witches of Oz came to be. But it also sports a book by My So-Called Life writer Winnie Holzman , which means tweens learn a lesson. A sorcerers-in-training motif goes after the Harry Potter crowd. And running beneath it all is an anti-war statement about demonizing enemies. Take that, Dubya!

Oh, wait – how could I forget an ecological theme, perfect for musical-loving tree-huggers and animal activists?

Too bad there are no hooks in the songs. Compared to Oz’s classic ditties, Stephen (Godspell, Pippin) Schwartz ‘s music and lyrics seem terribly banal.

What this dense, book-heavy musical needs are melodies and harmonies to establish character and suggest various worlds – not Schwartz’s bland, rock-poppy score.

The pretty, blond and popular Galinda ( Kendra Kassebaum ) gets the school to gang up on green-skinned newcomer Elphaba ( Stephanie J. Block ) and her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose ( Jenna Leigh Green ). When Galinda’s hottie boyfriend, Fiyero ( Derrick Williams ), starts looking beneath the colour of Elphaba’s skin, Galinda’s bubble nearly bursts.

Meanwhile, teacher Madame Morrible ( Carol Kane ) recognizes Elphaba’s witchy powers and promises to introduce her to the Wizard ( David Garrison ), who might not (surprise!) be so wonderful.

I’m all for artistic revisionism. What’s a drag about Wicked is that its Wizard Of Oz backstory robs the original of its magic.

The show also lacks an emotional centre. Galinda (later Glinda) and Elphaba eventually become friends, but their duet in the second act fails to touch us because we never believe in that friendship.

What we’re left with, besides a smart-looking production, are two strong performances – Kassebaum sparkles and bounces, while Block displays acting chops along with a powerful voice that brings down the curtain in the first act.

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