In "Wicked," the muddy $14 million spectacle that opened last night at the Gershwin Theatre, Chenoweth does what musical stars are expected to do in times of theatrical trouble: consult the book of spells, perform a bit of sorcery. This she accomplishes in spades as Glinda, the fabled good witch, promoted here from kitschy movie part to bravura stage lead. Whenever she opens her mouth - whether to demonstrate her supple coloratura or to detonate a verbal grenade or two - "Wicked" makes endearingly whimsical noises, the sounds of a bona fide crowd-pleaser.
Much of the rest of the time, however, the magic fades as the show pursues its rather charmless agenda as a parable about the roots of political evil. Freely based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," the musical portrays Oz as a police state in which the corrupt wizard (Joel Grey) dispatches Gestapo-style agents to arrest the kingdom's talking animals and place them in cages to shut them up. A society in paranoid mode - even one located over a rainbow - believes its enemies lie everywhere. So the wizard's sadistic press secretary (Carole Shelley) creates another one in the unsuspecting Elphaba (Idina Menzel), a sensitive, green-skinned animal rights activist and sorceress. Hounded and demonized, Elphaba retreats into a new identity as the Wicked Witch, she of the airworthy broom and conical black hat.
Those who keep tabs on current events will detect "Wicked's" topical transparency, its not-so-subtle swipes at an administration that has been characterized by some as exaggerating the threat posed from abroad. (After the Wicked Witch of the East is killed by the house that rides in on a Kansas tornado, Glinda is asked to describe the mishap. "A regime change," she declares.) This kind of political posturing, a Broadway tradition harking back to the days of message-laden musicals such as "Finian's Rainbow," often serves to date a show rather quickly. In "Wicked," it adds to a suffocating air of piety.
All in all, this is a far more sinister vision of Oz than the Technicolor dreamland conjured in the 1939 MGM movie version, which is referenced frequently (and comically) in the musical. But it's a hokey stroll on the dark side, one that ill suits L. Frank Baum's classic "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Director Joe Mantello, best known for work on straight plays, such as last season's Tony-winning "Take Me Out," displays no particular affinity for the task of knitting together the disparate fibers of a Broadway musical.
Menzel is a winning presence here. She's a thrilling belter and she powers through the brawny ballads with a gusto that raises goose bumps.