November 19 – January 10
One of the annoying things about seeing live theatre in the UK is the way that everyone in the audience eats and drinks their way through shows, like at the movies. In the case of “Wicked”, this noise seems to fade into the distance as soon as Ashleigh Gray, as Elphaba, begins her Act One rendition of ‘The Wizard and I’, reminding musical lovers of everything that is magical about the genre.
Gray brings a strong and feisty characterisation to the iconic role and is utterly at home in her green skin as she belts out ballads and defies gravity high above the stage. And although it is a shame not see her flying, but rather appear levitated amid a giant black sheet of draping, it is still a sensational act closer. Emily Tierney sparkles as Glinda, the Good Witch, leaving a lasting impression with her enthusiastic comedy choices and panto-esque delivery of her character’s trademark mispronouncations, even if she is breathy and not of strongest voice in some songs, like ‘Popular’. Marilyn Cutts makes the malevolent Madame Morrible deliciously dastardly, however, as the villainous wizard, Steven Pinder’s interpretation is more panto than palpably dark.
Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel of the same name, the 2003 musical serves as prequel to L Frank Baum’s iconic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as it shares the backstory of Oz’s witches, Elphaba and Glydia before the arrival of Dorothy and Toto and reveals how the Wicked Witch of the West is perhaps not that wicked after all. The intertextual references to now peripheral characters (like in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”) makes this a layered story that forces those familiar with the original tale, if only through the 1939 movie, to rethink their allegiance and consider a new found empathy for and understanding of the wicked witch’s motivation.
There is little that hasn’t been said about the story of the friendship between the unlikely duo of witches and little that has changed since their story first took the world by storm over a decade ago. What saves the show from tedium, however, are the glorious songs and the visual spectacle. The set is simply spectacular, the staging creative and the design elements of the finest quality. Costumes are appropriately over-the-top, particularly in the glitz of the green city.
Even after repeated viewings, it is easy to see why the “Wicked” green machine is a cultural phenomenon. The show is genuinely exciting in its scale and the story is as engaging as ever, driven as it is by clever plot and memorable songs. Indeed, all the elements which make it a wonderful musical theatre experience remain and its universal themes of friendship and acceptance in the face of intolerance resonate just as strongly as ever in a modern world in which Oz’s ban on animals talking and the resulting fear and division parallels Putin’s Russia.