Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire
Marc Platt, Universal Pictures, the Araca Group, John B Platt and David Stone
When I first saw Wicked back in 2015, I was most taken by the spectacular nature of the production—set, costumes, choreography, musical staging and performances—and by the lightness of touch in Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics (reminiscent in that sense of Godspell). I did also mention a political thread—“nothing controversial,” I wrote, “a concern for the rights of the downtrodden”—but this time I found myself much more conscious of the political underpinning, whether as a result of the performance or just of my seeing it for the second time I couldn’t say but my companion had the same reaction.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is almost an archetypal story, a fairy tale in which a young girl, dumped into a strange land through no fault of her own, sets off with three others who are in some way different from the norm, on a quest to have their desires fulfilled, their needs satisfied. And they succeed, although, in the case of the three companions, because of themselves rather than the magic of the Wizard, for he is actually a fraud, no wizard at all.
Prejudice rears its ugly head in Wicked from the beginning when Elphaba’s (she who was to become the Wicked Witch of the West) father, the Governor of Munchkinland, rejects her because of her green skin, a rejection she experiences everywhere she goes, even at Shiz University where, according to her father, her function is to look after her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose. However she proves to have strong magical powers, which leads to her being invited to meet the head of the state, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz himself, and then we see the corruption at the heart of the country, the deliberate destruction of the talking animals, the caging of the flying monkeys, policies which have an air of ethnic cleansing about them.
We watch as Elphaba, because of her opposition to the status quo, is pushed more and more into being perceived as the Wicked Witch of the West, whilst her friend Glinda is more and more seen as the Good Witch, Glinda who is a true sister to Legally Blonde‘s Elle Woods or Cassandra Chase from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
We also see what brought Dorothy from Kansas to Oz (a deliberate act of malicious magic), learn about the origin of the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man, and we watch as Dorothy melts Elphaba.
It’s a complex piece, intermingling and making connections between the two stories, showing how character develops and exploring all the corruption, from the drug-aided rape of Elphaba’s mother to the rottenness at the very heart of Oz.
And all this is wrapped in a spectacular production with magnificent set and costumes atmospherically lit, brilliant choreography and a 14-piece orchestra.
As for the performances, Amy Ross as Elphaba gives a sensitive and subtle portrayal of a young girl who, despite having been the subject of prejudice and relegated to being her sister’s virtual servant, maintains her integrity. She is also a fine singer and her first act closer—“Defying Gravity,” one of the show’s best known numbers—is powerfully performed and impressively, indeed almost terrifyingly staged.
Helen Woolf, another fine singer, plays Glinda. Initially the entitled, spoilt “Miss Popularity” brat, her growing (and most unexpected) friendship with Elphaba unsettles her most deeply held conviction—that she is the centre of the universe—and her playing reflects this gradual change with great subtlety and we feel that, by the end, she does deserve the title, Glinda the Good Witch.
In a fine and talented cast, two others stand out: Kim Ismay’s Madame Morrible, who is indeed horrible (and bears some resemblance to Mrs Malaprop!), and Stephen Pender as the talking goat university lecturer Dr Dillamond and—totally different in every way—the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
I had expected to come away with a sense of “been there, seen that” but, like all good theatre, Wicked has something more to offer every time, subtleties and depths which we don’t automatically associate with musical theatre.
It’s a long run at the Empire and it will be the production’s last visit to the North East. It is selling very well with best availability for shows from Monday to Wednesday.