(4 / 5)
I sometimes think that I am living my life in reverse. When I was young, I was a bookish lad – reading Tolstoy whilst still in primary school for instance. I was as far removed as being Wicked as you can imagine. I have been compensating for this ever since!
“The Untold story of the Witches of Oz” is how this musical is promoted. In case you ever wondered about this, then this story will reveal all.
I never cared much about “The Wizard of Oz” . I couldn’t see myself trundling along the Yellow Brick Road, with Dorothy, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man. One thing that as always puzzled me about this story. Obviously there is rain in the land of Oz (Somewhere over the Rainbow”), so wouldn’t the Tin Man resemble a character on TV from my teenage days from “The Magic Roundabout”?
So “Wicked” returns to Muchkinland and follows the adventures of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.
When Elphaba leaves home to attend Shiz University, a kind of Munchkinland Hogwarts, she is very green. Not only in the meaning of life, but, literally, green. Her green skin means that she is ostracied by society and she fails to make friends. That is until she meets Galinda, who later becomes Glinda, and after an unpromising beginning, a close friendship develops between them. A friendship that is tried and tested along the way. Eventually they make their way to The Emerald City where Elphaba meets and confronts the Wizard of Oz. The nefarious wizard is behind a pogromist type plot against the animals of the land. In defending them, Elphaba suffers a fall from grace and is hunted herself.
The story does have serious themes. The devotion to fitting in and being attractive, that is hugely important to American young girls in particular and is personified within the character of Glinda. “Beauty is only skin deep” as exemplified between Elphaba and her love interest Fiyero. The pogrom against the animals, in this case shown by the expulsion of Dr. Dillamond, a goat Professor at Shiz University, reminds us of 20th-century historic events in Armenia, Nazi German, Russia and China.
The show premiered on Broadway on 30 October 2003 after a trial run in San Francisco and is still showing at the Gershwin Theatre. It’s success reversed the trend of recent musical smash hits that originated in Britain, and has provided the impetus for an American resurgence in the genre that it started.
Music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz who announced himself to the world of musicals with his 1971 smash hit, “Godspell”. I can remember that a criticism of this show at that time, was that it was derivative of Lloyd Webber/Rice “Jesus Christ Superstar” that preceded it by a year. Similar criticism has been aimed at “Wicked” for cashing in on the Harry Potter phenomenon. The music is nothing special , largely generic 21st century fare. The lyrics work better though.
In the performance that I viewed, Elphaba was played by Amy Ross and Glinda by Charli Baptie. Ross belts here songs over with such an intensity, it can verge on the strident. Baptie possesses a more cultivated voice and shows an admirable talent for comic timing. For me, although Ross puts in a strong performance, it is Baptie, understudy to the stricken Helen Woolf who takes the performance honours in this production. Good support is provided by Aaron Sidwell, (Fiyero), Kim Ismay, (Madame Morrible), Steven Pinder, (the Wizard of Oz) and Emily Shaw as Nessarose, Elphaba’s invalid sister, who in Winnie Holzman’s book that the musical is based upon, becomes the Wicked Witch of the East.
Where the shows does really hit the heights is in Eugene Lee’s spectacular set design and Kenneth Posner’s lighting. Between them they conjure up a magical environment full on. The scene where Elphaba levitates and is caught in mid-air by the searchlights , that ends Act 1 is one of the most striking images that I have encountered in nigh on fifty years of theatre-going.
Wayne Cilento’s musical staging and James Lynn Abbott’s dance arrangements are also excellent and provide many memorable scenes, especially of the flying monkeys.
Susan Hilferty’s resplendent costumes also enhance the visual quality of this show.
Live music is also provided under the direction of David Rose and the orchestra acquit themselves well.
“Wicked” is a confident, (verging on brashness), visually impressive musical, that for most of you will weave sufficient magic from its wand, and put you under a spell that immediately renders a state of anesthesia whereby you forget its equally impressive admission price.