Alyssa Fox (Elphaba), left, and Carrie St. Louis (Glinda) are the stars of Wicked. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Anybody who has ever seen The Wizard of Oz will undoubtedly come out with a negative impression of the Wicked Witch of the West. I mean, c’mon, she is over-the-top mean and nasty. And so very green.

But you think to yourself: there has to be more to the story.

And, there is. Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, playing at Overture Center for the Arts in downtown Madison until Nov. 1, is a vivid re-imagination of the memorable tale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and tells the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West came to be. Spoiler: It turns out she was a she was a sweet and shy (albeit awkward) child growing up.

Going into my first-ever Wicked show, I had no idea what a phenomenon it has become. In its first decade, Wicked was Broadway’s highest-grossing show for nine consecutive years. Nearly 16 million people have seen one of its touring shows, which began in 2005. In its entirety — Broadway, North American and international tours — the musical has grossed over $4 billion.

Based on the 1995 Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West which turned every Oz myth inside out, Wicked explores the early life of the witches of Oz: Glinda and Elphaba. It’s is an alternative telling of the witches from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz and L. Frank Baum’s classic 1900 story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Long before Dorothy drops in from Kansas, two other girls meet in the Land of Oz. Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West) is the awkward, green-skinned loner accustomed to being on her own. She is smart, fiery, and misunderstood and has trouble making friends. Glinda the Good is beautiful, ambitious, bubbly, blonde, and wildy popular. Wicked tells the story of how these two unlikely friends met at Shiz College, a school where both hope to take up sorcery.

Wicked is funny in parts and touching in others. Sometimes, it’s just plain silly. The musical has several clever references to the 1939 film and Baum’s novel that crack up the audience. (Did you ever wonder how the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the flying monkeys came to be? Wonder no more.)
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The singing is outstanding and the performances are great. Wicked is visually spectacular, and I’m not just taking about the giant smoke-expelling dragon that looms over the stage and the steampunkish clocks and gears framing the story. The giant robotic mechanical Oz head (pictured above) is large and animated and scary and not just because he bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

Alyssa Fox (Elphaba), left, and Carrie St. Louis (Glinda) are the stars of Wicked and their chemistry is tremendous. My only beef with Wicked is that there is not one person of color in the rather-large cast. Well, besides Elphaba, who is technically green.

But in the end, there’s a reason why Wicked has been declared “The Best Musical of the Decade” by Entertainment Weekly and “A Cultural Phenomenon” by Variety. It’s just an amazing production. Very good. Wicked good.