Saturday, July 29, 2006 | Sometimes the best musicals and plays get the worst audiences, offering up a tepid response, rude behavior (using cell phones as a wristwatch in the middle of the performance), leaving before the curtain call. Thursday night’s performance of “Wicked” had some of that. But it also had something special: a rare group of enthusiastic, appreciative fans. What a surprise and delight to have anxious audience members applauding at the entrance of each main character, that doesn’t happen very often – at least in San Diego it doesn’t.

And the fans had reason for their graciousness: this production sparkles, shines and enchants in every way. From twinkle lights to flying monkeys to giant wizards (and the little men that hide behind them), the show leaves you breathless.

The characters in “Wicked” are ones you know, but different. Based on Gregory Maguire’s book of the same name about the witches in the Land of Oz, “Wicked” illustrates what happened in Oz before the infamous Dorothy ever landed there.

Anticipation for the “Wicked” tour blowing through San Diego has been bubbling for a long time. The show opened (eliciting a rather quiet response from critics) in 2003 and gained popularity quickly. Soon the story of witches and good and wickedness was a hit. It’s still on Broadway and went on to Chicago and on tour. A lot of fans have read the book, own the soundtrack and know “Wicked’s” story already.

The story is told in flashback by Glinda the Good (formerly known as Galinda) to the inhabitants of Oz after the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. She tells of Elphaba’s (the future wicked witch) unfortunate childhood. As Glinda, Kendra Kassebaum is bubbly. She’s also fidgety and perky and pretty and … popular! Kassebaum’s mastery of the role – with just enough spark and a little snark – was a joy to watch. Even when the spotlight wasn’t on her, she kept character quirks going and the audience giggling.

The story continues as the Oz dwellers press her for details on how she, the “Good Witch,” ever came to know the “Wicked Witch.” Turns out, Glinda and Elphaba were college roommates. (Maguire based the name Elphaba on name of the author of “The Wizard of Oz,” L. Frank Baum. L.F.B.) Eventually they became friends and make a trip to the Wizard of Oz, thinking they are going to be taught the tricks of the wizardry trade. Things don’t go so well in the Emerald City, and the girls find themselves in serious trouble.

Flashing back further, we learn that Elphaba, a product of her mother’s scandalous affair, was born green. Nicknamed Elphie (Julia Murney), she has learned to accept her pallor and has become fiercely independent and uncaring about what people think. She’s misunderstood. She loves animals. She does the right thing. And in Oz, (or the real world) that doesn’t necessarily make you considered good or right or popular. Murney skillfully sings with great clarity and volume. She has an outstanding voice, and she sings her heart out – and nearly breaks yours – at the same time.

Sebastian Arcelus is Fiyero, the handsome, popular, new student at Shiz University. Arcelus’ charisma is evident the minute he appears onstage; he’s the perfect prince in this witches brew.

And there’s trouble brewing at the university and in Oz. A movement is happening, the animals who had once had civil rights are being forced out of society and losing their ability to speak. K. Todd Freeman as Dr. Dillamond, a thoughtful ram, gives a standout performance, especially in a lunchtime scene with Elphie.

Alma Cuervo is reminiscent of a kinder Mommy Dearest in her role as Madame Morrible, headmistress at Shiz, who seems to have a shady character relationship with the Wizard. Cuervo struts around fabulously. P.J. Benjamin is the Wizard, the self-proclaimed sensitive man who never had any power in the first place. Benjamin is great, does a cute song and dance routine with Elphie, and conveys the Wizard much like in “The Wizard of Oz” film – pathetic, sad, but not quite unlikable. It’s a delicate balance and Benjamin gets it right.

Tons of heart and thought went into the stage design and direction of this show. It’s electrifying to see a moving, giant flying dragon that perches over the stage, its eyes glowing red from time to time. The details in lyrics, costumes and subtle set-changes are amazing.

The audience was also electric. When the curtain went down for intermission, people sighed, shrieked, squealed at the wonder of it. And, before the final curtain closed, they were already out of their seats for a standing ovation. Well, except for the rude ones who left before the performers’ bows.

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