Amanda Jane Cooper, left, and Emily Koch play the famous Oz witches in “Wicked.” (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

Popular ‘Wicked’ back in San Francisco

Everybody has a back story, but few are quite as interesting as the Wicked Witch of the West’s.

The sorceress finally gets her due in “Wicked,” the wonderful musical at the SHN Orpheum Theatre through April 16. It’s been three years since the blockbuster sho has been in San Francisco (the musical’s pre-Broadway tryouts were here in 2003).

The story focuses on the young witch Elphaba. Loyal to her sister and her BFF, she is forced to go on the run after becoming the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by the Wizard himself.

“The best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy,” the Wizard explains.

“Wicked,” based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, is a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which inspired the 1939 film starring Judy Garland. Stephen Schwartz wrote the show’s music and lyrics; the book is by Winnie Holzman.

This is an Oz unlike any other.

Elphaba meets Glinda (yes, that Glinda) in school. They couldn’t be more opposite. Elphaba is fiercely smart, outspoken and green; Glinda is bubbly, blond and popular. They form a deep friendship that makes the rest of the story plausible.

As Elphaba, Emily Koch is a standout with impeccable comic timing and a soaring voice that carries the show. As she quips at the start, she is “beautifully tragic.”

Amanda Jane Cooper’s Glinda provides the perfect counterpoint. The actresses have good chemistry and convincingly play two friends who don’t always see eye to eye – especially when it comes to love.

It’s nice to visit a land where nobody is entirely good or bad. Glinda struggles giving directions to the famous foursome on the Yellow Brick Road; Elphaba defends animal rights at great personal danger.

At times, the story is a bit challenging to follow, but it all comes together at the end. It’s a brilliant twist that Dorothy is never seen.

Parts of the set were a little wobbly on Thursday’s opening night, but the tour’s stellar actors — dressed in steam punk glory that beautifully balanced elements from the classic tale — gamely went on.

It isn’t easy being green, but Elphaba tackles prejudice head on from start to finish, and delivers an important message about self-acceptance. Koch creates an Elphaba who is powerful, tender and sympathetic.

At one point, the witch laments, “Shouldn’t a girl who is so good inside have a matching exterior?”

Turns out, she does.

Where: SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 16
Tickets: $25 to $238
Contact: (888) 746-1799,

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