Sometimes the production really can live up to the hype
Wicked’s success has a lot to do with originality and playfulness; it’s a prequel to the ‘Wizard of Oz’ and gives more depth to well known characters. The Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, is a misunderstood young girl who was born with bright green skin - she’s also the show’s unexpected heroine. Whereas Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, starts out as a spoilt blonde brat and learns her compassion from Elphaba. Wicked turns everything upside down and makes us question whether any of the characters are truly ‘bad’.
I was lucky enough to see the original British Wicked Witch Kerry Ellis reprise her role as Elphaba; she was an absolute joy to watch on stage. Her vocals were crystal clear and seemed effortless, particularly in solo ‘The Wizard and I’ and the hit ‘Defying Gravity’. But she worked best in partnership with Savannah Stevenson as Glinda, whose vocals were a little higher in pitch.
Scores of teenage girls have famously latched onto Wicked and I think it’s because of this focus on female friendship. Glinda and Elphaba convincingly despise each other for much of the first half, particularly in the hilarious song ‘What Is This Feeling’, before their friendship flourishes. Wicked has different values to other musicals; even though there’s a predictable romantic interest, friendship, loyalty and honesty triumph over sappiness.
The amazing thing is that Wicked has been around since 2006. Other musicals of a similar age have begun to sag in unflattering places but Wicked has managed to keep itself fresh, and it’s not just down to its story-line. The overall production values are of a staggeringly high quality; although I did occasionally notice that Kerry Ellis’ voice had to be turned down to match the other singers. The performers have enthusiasm (which should go without saying, but not always – Mamma Mia! I’m looking at you), the song lyrics are witty and the costumes are impeccable. For a hugely enjoyable and even magical night out I would heartily recommend Wicked to anyone.
Venue: the Apollo Victoria
Lead Cast Members: Kerry Ellis and Savannah Stevenson
Where I sat: C16 in the Circle. I had an excellent view of the stage with no restrictions at all. My seat was a bit squeaky but everyone around me seemed to have the same problem.
Recommended for: Wicked isn’t just for fans of The Wizard of Oz; the story is so original that you don’t need to have seen the film. Basic knowledge of the characters comes in handy so you can understand the subtle references in places but it wouldn’t hinder anyone’s enjoyment.
Lacks substance to match its style
Based on the best-selling novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked charts the journey of the witches of Oz, Elphaba and Glinda, from their early days as rival sorcery students to their forming of an unlikely friendship, before ultimately being ascribed the monikers of Wicked and Good. Maguire provides a witty social commentary, as the Wizard’s fascist government succeeds in convincing the populace that talking Animals are the cause of all their woes and begins stripping away their civil liberties. When Elphaba rises up against the oppressive regime, she is the victim of a tactical smear campaign that culminates in Dorothy and her entourage being offered a reward for her murder.
Winnie Holzman’s adaptation of the book manages to anaesthetise much of its darker political allegory, instead favouring cutesy scenes with bubbly Glinda. Although this may be a reasonable tactic in creating a musical version that appeal to families, her invention of an unexplained and entirely illogical happy ending fails spectacularly. After a long career of being Broadway and Hollywood’s go-to composer for pure schmaltz, Stephen Schwartz has managed to write three palpable hits in an otherwise forgettable score with “Popular”, “For Good”, and the show-stopper, “Defying Gravity”.
Rachel Tucker’s powerhouse performance as Elphaba is, by far, the most accomplished element of the production. Her soaring voice and electric energy grab you from her opening notes, and she demonstrates a highly-skilled flair for comedy. She imbues Elphaba with wry wit and gives a heartfelt performance that certainly makes you question which witch is wicked. Gina Beck fails to hit the same comic notes as a one-dimensionally vapid Glinda, but she has a beautiful voice and extraordinarily wide vocal range.
There’s strong support from an ebullient ensemble, and Desmond Barrit’s acerbic turn as the Wizard deserves special praise, as does Adam Pettigrew’s endearing portrayal of Boq. I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’s Matt Willis makes a fairly uninspired Fiyero, but he has a pleasant voice and a dashing smile that serve the role adequately. The costumes and sets, designed by Susan Hilferty and Eugene Lee respectively, are spectacular, and magically bring to life the wondrous land of Oz.
Whilst the moral message of the piece may remain thin, the high production values and Rachel Tucker’s impressive performance in the central role make this an enjoyable evening at the theatre.
Where I sat: B32-33. Second row of the stalls on the left-hand side. The Apollo Victoria Theatre is one of the largest West End venues and boasts a very wide auditorium. Seats on either extreme of the hall will have slightly restricted views, but I missed very little even though I was all the way to the left.
Recommended: Yes, for a splashy musical and a pleasant night out, this is a good choice.