Wicked, the 2003 Broadway blockbuster with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, based on the fabulous 1995 fantasy novel by Gregory Maguire, is the jewel in the crown for Durham Performing Arts Center’s 2009-10 SunTrust Broadway Series and, oh my, how it sparkles! Wicked is not just an entertainment option; it is an event made ever more grand and glorious by the brisk and often brilliant direction of Joe Mantello, the kinetic musical staging of Wayne Cilento, and the rousing accompaniment by music director/conductor Adam Souza and a 14-piece orchestra that includes nine local musicians playing their hearts out.

The production values of this bus-and-truck tour are also outstanding, with the 2004 Tony Award®-winning set design of Eugene Lee and the Technicolor costumes of fellow 2004 Tony winner Susan Hilferty both tailored to fill the DPAC stage with all manner of wonders and marvels. Indeed, any show that begins with a red-eyed, fire-breathing dragon glowering over the stage, out into the audience, makes the viewer sit up and take notice.

But it is the crackerjack characterizations of Vicki Noon as Elphaba Thropp, a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West, and especially Natalie Daradich as Galinda Upland, a.k.a. Glinda the Good Witch, that make the audience want to stand up and cheer as it did, long and loud, at the end of the April 22nd performance. Noon is delightful as the girl with the green skin. Elphaba may be a social outcast at Shiz University, but she is a brilliant and compassionate student with a special empathy for the plight of capital-A intelligent Animals, who can talk and walk upright and are smarter than some of her classmates. Although a campus pariah, Elphaba also has a natural gift for witchcraft, an infinity that becomes dangerous whenever an injustice trips Elphaba’s hair-trigger temper.

Scene-stealer Natalie Daradich gives a pixilated performance as the glamorous and incurably vain Glinda, Elphaba’s reluctant roommate and a regular Mrs. Malaprop, who mangles the English language worse than former President George W. Bush. Shallow and self-absorbed to the nth degree, Glinda initially recoils at the outrageous otherness of the green girl; but improbably the two become best of friends. More than anything, Glinda wants to be “Popular”she’s a social butterfly hoping to spread her wings at the highest levels of Ozian society — whereas Elphaba is resigned to be a misfit (“I’m Not That Girl”), whose occasional emotional outbursts are terrifying to the beholders even if she doesn’t bespell them.

Vicki Noon and Natalie Daradich sing two dazzling duets, the defiant “Defying Gravity” and “For Good,” a sublime testimonial to their unlikely friendship, which alone are worth the price of admission. But this terrific national tour of Wicked features other superlative songs and other charismatic characterizations.

Chris Peluso gives a crowd-pleasing portrayal of Fiyero from the Vinkus, a handsome prince and bon vivant who is initially as superficial as Glinda, but gradually empathizes with Elphaba and grows to love her. Indeed, Fiyero’s profession of love for Elphaba in “As Long as You’re Mine” is one of the loveliest love songs ever; and Peluso and Vicki Noon left the DPAC audience with a lump in its throat.

David de Vries is wonderful as the talking goat Dr. Dillamond, the only capital-A Animal left on the faculty of Shiz University until he is fired by orders of the (not so) Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Don Amendolia), banished from the university, and loses his powers to speak and walk upright.

Marilyn Caskey makes Madame Morrible (rhymes with Horrible), the haughty and aptly named headmistress of Crage Hall at Shiz University, thoroughly hissable. The Machiavellian madam teaches sorcery at Shiz and specializes in black-magic spells that gin up meteorological phenomena such as the tornado that whisks 12-year-old Dorothy Gale from her farm in Kansas to Munchkinland.

The truly wicked Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who shamelessly fools Ozians with technological tricks that he pretends are magic, is played with great relish by Don Amendolia. A dictator who rules the Emerald City with an iron hand, the Wizard sets out to crush Elphaba, first, by publicly branding her as “wicked” and then by turning the population against her and her comrades in the capital-A Animal Liberation Movement.

Zach Hanna is cute as the merry Munchkin lad Boq, who has a monster-size (totally unrequited) crush on Glinda; and Michelle London is good as Elphaba’s wheelchair-bound younger sister Nessarose, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the East after donning the magical silver slippers that Elphaba gives her, so that she can walk unaided.

Don Richard and Kerry Blanchard contribute sharply etched cameos as the stuffy Governor of Munchkinland and his round-heeled wife, who gives birth to Elphaba after a whirlwind affair with a stranger that lasted a single night, but conceives Nessarose with her husband. KC Fredericks also deserves kudos for his acrobatic performance as the laboratory monkey Chistery, who earns his wings during the course of this must-see musical, produced by Marc Platt, Universal Pictures, The Araca Group, Jon B. Platt, and David Stone.

Wicked continues April 23-25, April 27-May 2, and May 4-9 and 11-16 in Durham Performing Arts Center’s brand-new, 2,800-seat, state-of-the-art theater, in the American Tobacco District in downtown Durham, NC. See our theater calendar for details