It’s probably worth pointing out before I begin, that I love musicals. I love everything about them, the songs, the costumes and the spectacle. And when I saw Wicked for the first time, in Chicago in 2005, I adored it, and was worried that the London production wouldn’t measure up. Fortunately, for me at least, it has exceeded my expectations.
Wicked – ‘the untold story of the witches of Oz’ – is based on the novel by the Gregory McGuire, which is in turn based on the characters created by L. Frank Baum and memorably brought to life in the classic 1930s film. The story focuses, not on Dorothy this time, but on the green-skinned Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West to be) and Glinda the good witch, and explains how they ended up taking their respective paths.
We first meet Elphaba on her first day of school, where her green skin automatically sets her apart. Though Glinda is her antithesis, pretty, popular and smart, they soon embark on a interesting friendship. In trying to describe Elphaba, Glinda calls her “unusually and exceedingly peculiar” – while Elphaba sums her new friend up as “blonde.” There is some very sharp humour in this musical, and even if it does lurch towards the obligatory American schmaltz-fest towards the end, the clever lyrics by Stephen Schwartz keep it anchored. Songs such as Popular and Defying Gravity are particularly well-crafted.
Idina Menzel is amazing as Elphaba; she takes this green-skinned, gawky girl and really makes something of her. She dominates the cavernous Apollo despite her diminutive size – and her voice is enormous yet surprisingly expressive. As an actress she succeeds in making you care about this unlikely character.
Newcomer Helen Dallimore is not quite as strong as Glinda, but she seemed to grow in confidence as the production progressed and was genuinely moving when singing For Good, appearing on the verge of tears. I suspect she has the makings of a great Glinda and will grow into the role as the run continues. There is also some excellent chemistry between the leads, especially when it’s just the two of them on stage.
Nigel Planer is excellent as the Wizard, a con-man skilled in ‘flim-flammery,’ and he carries off a very good American Mid-Western accent. Miriam Margolyes is also superb as Madame Morrible – a great comedienne but also capable of real menace. Adam Garcia has the necessary charm to pull of the role of Fiyero, the man who comes between the witches.
This is a large, slick production, but director Joe Mantello doesn’t neglect the emotional core of the story. Visually delightful, it’s also packed with in-jokes for those who know the book and film well, with copious references to the Emerald City and ruby slippers.
Wicked contains everything a good musical should: comedy, friendship, a love story of sorts, memorable songs and a talented cast. How much you enjoy it will depend on your love of big Broadway spectacles but if you go with an open heart and an open mind you may just love it as much as I did.