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The Wicked Witch of the West End – Wicked; A Review

August 7, 2011

Every time I go to London, I think how wonderful it would be to live there. Having said that, my experiences of London tend to be quite lavish and unrealistic – aimlessly wandering in Regent’s Park, browsing in shops where I can’t even afford a carrier bag, striking cliche poses by the city’s landmarks, meandering through galleries pretending I know a lot more about art than I really do and pondering over the paintings doing my best intellectual pout, and, wherever I can, taking in one of the many wonderful shows the West End has to offer. This week, I embarked on one such visit and, in the company of my two sisters and my Mother, who paid for the tickets, the hotel and the ice cream during the interval, I saw Wicked.

Acclaimed as “the musical of the decade”, for those of you who don’t know, Wicked is based on the novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire. I reviewed the novel about a year ago on my other project here. The basic premise of both the novel and the musical is to tell the “untold” story of the witches of Oz. I love this sort of thing. While the idea isn’t exactly the most original, it gives the original Wizard of Oz a fresh twist and revitalises it for a contemporary audience. Normally, having read the book before seeing the stage adaptation would ruin one or the other for me. Because of this, and because I was initially quite disappointed with the extent to which the musical departs from the novel, I decided to consider them as seperate things (much in the same way as I’ve had to consider the whole Harry Potter franchise in order to embrace both the books and films as being of equal merit).

Rachel Tucker as Elphaba

Overall, I was impressed by the casting of the musical. It’s always a sort of pleasure to me when there isn’t a single name on the programme that I recognise from TV, film etc, because then I don’t have any preconceived notions of what the performance will be like and can appreciate the cast purely for their musical/theatrical talents rather than for their celebrity status. And you know when the cast are talented when their portrayals provoke a reaction from you as you sit in the audience, as though you were watching real life pan out in front of you. Glinda’s characterisation annoyed me intensely throughout. I thought that over the course of the musical her incessant cheeriness and plastic, Barbie doll attitude would mellow and she’d become quite likeable by the end, but this wasn’t the case and that can only be a testiment to Louise Dearman’s portrayal of her. Rachel Tucker’s Elphaba was exactly as I would have expected – well spoken with a slight Northern twang that indicates her balshy, “no messing” attitude (why is it that headstrong, intelligent but socially ostracised characters always end up Northern?) – and oh my, that young woman can sing! Even painted bright green and dressed in the frumpy costume of Elphaba’s university uniform, Tucker looks so slight and petite that it’s hard to believe such a powerful, resonant voice can come out of someone so small. The songs are catchy and I was really pleased to see them give more or less every member of the cast, whether a main part or a member of what the theatre term the “company” (but chorus to us non-theatrical bods), at least a small solo and therefore prove how talented a group of people are working on this show. Even a week later, I still keep catching myself out humming the songs from the musical and yowling away (when I think nobody’s listening) in a poor attempt to reproduce Tucker’s singing. I may find it pertinent at some point to procure a copy of the soundtrack and put anyone who does happen to hear my rendition out of their misery.

The set was amazing. I’m not sure if it’s actually allowed to take photos of the stage but I did manage to sneak a few before they announced that photography is prohibited (I didn’t take any during the performance…). The “Time Dragon” hanging above the stage was viscious and beautifully detailed, and how they got it to move, light up and breathe smoke will always be beyond me. The whole stage was utilised, with balconies, stepladders, retractable bridges, bubbles… I was very impressed. I don’t think there was a square foot of the stage space that went unused over the course of the production and it’s certainly more interesting for the audience if they have lots of things to look at all over the place rather than just focussing on a group of people standing around at more or less eye level.

On the downside, for people who aren’t familiar with the novel and Elphaba’s preoccupation with the political state of Oz, the first half of the production can be a bit slow and uninteresting to watch. It isn’t until right before the interval that it really picks up, but it’s completely necessary to have all the stuff that’s more “drama” than musical spectacle in order to understand how Elphaba came to be the Wicked Witch of the West. Also, the enchanted “ruby slippers” belonging to Nessarose, the Wicked Witch of the East, in this production were silver. I can’t have thought it would have been too much of a challenge to get red ones instead and keep that minor detail at least true to both the original Oz and Maguire’s novel?

The thing I liked most about Wicked though wasn’t anything to do with the spectacle of the performance, it was the way the musical engaged with the original Wizard of Oz. I liked very much how the lion cub that Elphaba and Fiyero rescue from persecution that would prevent it’s learning to talk later on becomes the Cowardly Lion of the original (this happens in the novel too). Likewise, Boq becomes the Tin Man as a result of Elphaba’s magic and, Fiyero becomes the Scarecrow at Elphaba’s hands in her attempt to save his life. The second two weren’t gifted to the creative team by the novel (at least I don’t recall anything like that happening in the book…) and so it was quite a clever and even witty move on their part to draw those connections between Wicked and the original depiction of Oz.

I would definitely recommend Wicked to anyone who enjoys musicals. While it’s completely different to the West End classics like Phantom and The Lion King, it gave me and my family a thoroughly enjoyable evening. It’s certainly not necessary to have read the book to understand what’s going on; in fact, I would probably dissuade prospective show-goers from making the effort to peruse it beforehand because the two are so different. It very much has that “feel good” factor to it and cannot fail to bring a smile to the faces of the audience, and be rewarded by a standing ovation.

Images courtesy of Wickedthemusical.co.uk

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