Call Lesley McKinnell a bubble: as Glinda the good witch, she floats right to the top.
McKinnell, filling in for principal Natalie Daradich, literally dazzles as one half of the witchly team that headlines "Wicked," Stephen Schwartz's hummable 2003 musical that alighted in Madison Wednesday night.
Glinda's dress sparkles. Her tiara throws darts of light. Even McKinnell's strong soprano is glittery yet grounded, never betraying that she doesn't do this every night of the national tour.
"Wicked," running through Oct. 10 in Overture Hall, is all-over shiny, from polished dance numbers to Eugene Lee's spinning, glowing set. It's slick, and a little cold.
The plot can be vague as it skips among the high points of Gregory Maguire's "Wizard of Oz"-derived novel. At college, green-skinned Elphaba (the fine Vicki Noon) is despised by her classmates, particularly her roommate, the blindingly blonde Galinda (she later drops the "a"). Elphaba discovers that someone has been repressing the Animals, who are capital-A sentient, including a beloved Goat professor who is unjustly removed from his post.
But Winnie Holzman's story doesn't spend much time on the reasons for Elphaba's crusade. "Wicked" is a love story about the bond between friends. It even progresses like a romantic comedy between "Elphie" and Glinda - loathing, miscommunication, overtures, tentative affection, separation and finally, devotion. (To director Joe Mantello's credit, this does not feel trite, though it does seem fast.)
The real reason "Wicked" has been breaking box office records all over the country since '03 is the music. Schwartz's infectious score dips and soars, from the rock chords of the opening chorus to the bubbly "Popular" and diva show stopper, "Defying Gravity." "For Good," the most famous duet, lingers on lush, satisfying harmonies.
This singers, as well as Adam Souza's adept (if keyboard-heavy) band, are up to the score's demands. This national tour boasts an able supporting cast, from Chris Peluso as the shallow prince who "dances through life" to the hapless hick who became a wonderful wizard (Don Amendolia, with a Cheshire cat grin).
Visually, "Wicked" is gorgeous. McKinnell flits about the stage in a series of pretty frocks, from feathery pink to canary yellow. Designer Susan Hilferty's black and white patterns in the Ozdust Ballroom recall the Queen of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland;" earthy colors make a marauding witch mob look like they stepped straight out of a fairy tale. "Beauty and the Beast," perhaps?
It may sound churlish to say "Wicked" makes up in flash what it lacks in heart. But the connections feel forced - as Elphaba, Noon keeps her distance from everyone, even during an oddly chaste "lovemaking" scene. She's a solid singer with a keen sense of comic timing, but it doesn't penetrate beneath the surface. As Fiyero, Peluso, too, looks like he's going through the motions.
For a picture of loneliness, look to Glinda, suspended in her bubble at the close of the show. She still has her sparkle, but she's all by herself.