Since there's no place like home, "Wicked" is flying back in to the Bay Area next week, and following the yellow brick road to San Jose for the highly anticipated South Bay debut of this blockbuster.

The return of the "Wizard of Oz" stage prequel -- which has had audiences around the globe over the rainbow since its 2003 world premiere in San Francisco -- got me thinking about my love/hate relationship with the musical. Or perhaps that should be detest/grudgingly-respect relationship.

You see, I was a wicked witch of a theater critic when "Wicked" premiered. Even the radiant star power of Kristen Chenoweth as Glinda the good witch and of Idina Menzel as the infamous Elphaba couldn't distract me from what I still consider to be the play's flaws.

The sugary sameness of the score (by Stephen Schwartz of "Godspell" and "Pippin"), a candy coating on the dark political themes and the bouncy girl-power vibe are all turnoffs for me.

Indeed, as a fan of Gregory Maguire's original novel, with its pointed critique of the rise of a police state built around folksy aw-shucks politicians, evil wars waged over foreign natural resources and the death of civil rights, I felt the show blunted the bite of the tale to the point of inanity. And did I mention that I'm not a huge fan of generic power anthems? Sigh.

Let me assure you that I was not the only critic who was less than enchanted. New York reviews dubbed the show "overproduced" and "overblown." The New York Times was among the most vicious: "Wicked does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical."


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Audiences, however, had a different response.

Eleven years later, "Wicked" remains the ne plus ultra of Broadway hits. It has been venerated at the box office, where it remains a top-grossing, unstoppable juggernaut (we're talking more than 38 million theatergoers!) and in pop culture, from "South Park" to "The Simpsons." Hollywood is gearing up for the movie version, with rumors flying fast and furious that Lea Michele of "Glee" will star. It seems "Wicked" will be popular in the American cultural lexicon for good. As it were.

As a result, this critic has had to slip on ruby slippers to review the show many, many times with many casts, including some true gems (Carole Kane as Madame Morrible? Divine!).

Along the way, I have softened my stance about feminism being reinvented for the tween generation. If legions of little girls and teens find "Defying Gravity" empowering, who am I to rain on their parade?

Certainly, the power of sisterhood is a magical thing to celebrate, particularly in a world that still favors the man behind the curtain. And there's no denying that Winnie Holzman ("My So-Called Life"), the writer of the book for the stage musical, does know a thing or two about strong female characters. Nor is there any doubt that the show has glittery eye candy, from Eugene Lee's spectacle of a set to Susan Hilferty's costumes.

Don't get me wrong: I am still not a huge fan of "Wicked," my pretties, though I have come to appreciate that the power it holds for others is legitimate. For the record, I have experienced realizations about "Mamma Mia!" which I loathed for many a year but had to experience repeatedly (both for professional reasons and because it is my mother's favorite show ever) until some of the edge wore off my disdain, and I came to enjoy the unmistakable glee of those around me. Theatrical pleasure can be infectious. Sort of like yawning,

So if you're planning to defy gravity with the national tour of "Wicked" that's flying into San Jose's Center for the Performing Arts, I wish you gentle winds. And your little dog, too.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

'WICKED'
Presented by Broadway San Jose
When: Aug. 27-Sept. 14
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose
Tickets: $53.75-$121.70; 866-395-2929, www.broadwaysanjose.com