Apollo Victoria Theatre, London
23 March 2013
Now booking until April 2014
When Wicked flew into London seven years ago, it was riding on a wave of popular success but a rather mixed critical reception on Broadway. Here in the UK our press were a little kinder, but it is still very much a show that has proved critics wrong in its staying power – and paying my first visit to this record-breaking creation of Simon Schwarz and Winnie Holzman, I’m pretty damn glad it did. ‘The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz’ has pretty much everything on the West End musical checklist – humour, romance, scary bits to make the children in the audience squirm, fabulous costumes and lighting, catchy tunes and a whopping great powerhouse showstopper just before the interval. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t feel too much of a cliché. The production so clearly screams money and Broadway – just look at the sparkling green lights of the Emerald City and the glorious Tim Burton-esque costumes – so it is down to the cast to ensure the show avoids the soullessness that big money productions can potentially bring.
|Photo: Stuck in Customs|
Luckily for audiences, a stream of glitteringly talented Elphabas and Glindas have helped to keep the magic alive, from Idina Menzel to Kerry Ellis to TV-talent-show escapee Rachel Tucker. Currently, the wonderful Louise Dearman is playing the green-skinned heroine, making her the first actress to play both protagonists. And boy, can she sing. ‘Iconic’ is a big word, but Defying Gravity is on the way to this status already (partly thanks to Glee, I’m sure…) and Dearman certainly has the lungs to pull it off. As she soars above the stage, her voice follows suit and she delivers a powerful punch to round off the first half of the show. Yet Dearman’s performance is not all about the shouty long notes: her quieter moments are genuinely moving and she delivers a rounded performance which ensures that, although this song is a scene-stealer, it doesn’t define the whole production. At this performance, standby Lucy Van Gasse took the stage as Glinda and certainly proved her prowess as a leading lady, providing a contrasting performance to Dearman with her pure soprano and Disney princess-esque fluttering, with just a touch of Elle Woods – but at the same time she completed a perfect partnership without which Wicked does not work.
For it is within this duo that the magic starts and ends, and which provides Wicked’s ‘USP’, to coin a horribly corporate term. That the most important relationship in the show – the one which creates the warmth and drives the tension – is not one of romance but of friendship, is delightfully different from the norm. Similarly but less tragically than Blood Brothers, as cheesy as it sounds, it is a story of people. It may be set in a fantastical land of munchkins and flying monkeys and wonderful wizards, but the comedy and loyalty which embodies their relationship is refreshingly normal in spite of it all, and really holds the show together.
There is, of course, a romantic thread to the show: one that, nominally, threatens this central relationship. But the dashing Fiyero, played with rebellious yet Eton-esque charm and swagger by Ben Freeman, does feel like a side character, despite his centrality to the plot. Equally, newcomer Sam Lupton’s Boq, Melissa Jacques’ Madame Morrible and Keith Bartlett’s sprightly and eccentric Wizard are all strong performances, but cannot avoid feeling rather like elements of a background patchwork on which Elphaba and Glinda play out their story. This is no criticism of the cast – merely, the plot and script are perhaps too much centred on these star performances to let others shine as they could. In other areas, however, the book of the musical is surprising in its intricacies and delights, neatly tying up the looser ends of the original Wizard of Oz plot and challenging those we thought were set in stone. The moral ambiguities of both Elphaba and Glinda ensure they are not reduced to pantomimish representations of good and evil, and Dearman and Van Gasse negotiate their characters with nuance, whilst remaining on the lighter side of things – this is a great show for children, after all.
Despite some of these niggles with the plot, the overall feeling at the close of the show is one of magic, excitement, thrill and, even, fulfilment. It may not have the intense emotion of Les Mis or the irrepressible joy of Matilda, for example, but as long as the two leads continue to be cast with the very best of the West End’s talent (please, casting directors, avoid any token celebrity Glindas or Elphabas – the show wouldn’t cope) Wicked lifts you out of the everyday into a joyful world of fantasy, and will no doubt continue to enchant audiences for years to come.