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A Grand 'Wicked' Fills The Stage At Oakdale

There's no rest for the "Wicked." The national tour of the long-running Oz-stravaganza bobs, weaves, flies, glimmers, and engages in swordplay with wands and brooms. This is the show's fifth time in Connecticut, and the first time it's played somewhere other than The Bushnell.

The Oakdale in Wallingford, where the musical plays through Dec. 11, is a big stage to fill, but "Wicked" crams it full of Munchkins, Winkies, flying monkeys, smoke, moonbeams and magic. The proscenium arch is adorned with a giant dragon head. The set design, by Eugene Lee (the longtime "Saturday Night Live" production designer who'll soon be doing "Endgame" at the Long Wharf) is a mass of meshing gears, clocks, curtains, maps, castles, classrooms and the hint of a yellow brick road.

The show has been touring for over a decade yet is still a high-end Actors' Equity union endeavor. Quality control is evident everywhere, from the sparkle on the ruby slippers to the hair on the monkeys' tails. When the ensemble chorus changes into Emerald City attire for the second act, the whole stage glows and a fresh energy is created before anyone sings a word.

The musical's plot — about good and evil witches, and how they got that way — plays fast and loose with the smart "Wicked" novel by Gregory Maguire, which itself deviated liberally from the original sacred Oz texts of L. Frank Baum. The show gets extra mileage out of funny references to the MGM film version of "The Wizard of Oz."

"Wicked" ostensibly has a modern sensibility, a sassy approach to the battles of good and evil within us all. Yet the show, only 13 years old, seems quaint and old-fashioned rather than progressive. It uses all sorts of cliches and shortcuts to keep the plot moving. Stephen Schwartz's songs and Wayne Cilento's choreography are part of a grand, boisterous Broadway tradition.

The colorfully costumed cast members, some of whom have been with the tour for just a few months, keep things lively, even as some of them lose their hearts or minds. Nothing seems stale or rote. It helps that there's such variety in the staging and storytelling. When the future Glinda the Good Witch (played with winsome petulance by Amanda Jane Cooper, who also played the role when "Wicked" was at The Bushnell back in 2011) and the future Wicked Witch of the West Elphaba (newcomer Jessica Vosk, who has a powerhouse voice and an appealing vulnerability) first meet, their dialogue is tentative and brief and awkward. Later, they volley neatly crafted insults at each other. When they finally bond as roommates, it's through a long silent dance routine. Fred Applegate is disarmingly charming as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. There's some skillful bleating by Chad Jennings as the professorial goat Doctor Dillamond. A tight-lipped, squinty-eyed Isabel Keating plays Madame Morrible, one of the few "Wicked" characters who is wicked throughout the show. The others can change from bad to good, or engage in deceptions about their true natures, or are just misunderstood.

The show's philosophies are profound: "Never apologize for talent." "It's just life, so keep dancing through." "Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?" "We can't all come and go by bubble."

The Oakdale once had its own Broadway subscription series like The Bushnell, but now only occasionally gets tours such as this. The venue is known primarily as a large concert hall, and "Wicked" works well in that framework. Everything is big and loud and clear.

"Wicked" can be so staggeringly grand that you can't help but be moved by it. This mammoth production may not defy gravity, as its best-known song claims to, but it certainly suspends disbelief and ascends to a high standard. It's Oz-inspiring.

THE NATIONAL TOUR OF "WICKED" continues at the Oakdale Theater, 95 S. Turnpike Road, Wallingford, through Dec. 11. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40-$165. 203-265-1501, oakdale.com.

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