WICKED AT THE BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME
Theatre Run: Wednesday 09 July - Saturday 06 September 2014
Performance Reviewed: Thursday 10 July (Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Wicked will cast it's spell upon you... Wicked is wicked-ly good... Spellbinding!
With that obligatory bit of housekeeping out of the way, it's almost difficult to comprehend what to say about musical colossus Wicked that hasn't already been said countless times over. One of the most celebrated and successful musicals of the 21st Century, it is an internationally renowned mega-hit whose adoration (and ticket sales) show no sign of dwindling any time soon. Winnie Holzman's adapted tale that takes a canted look at the witches of Oz (taken from Gregory Maguire's more morbid book of the same name) combined with Stephen Schwartz's already-iconic music has leapt into our collective cultural consciousness and tapped into a generational zeitgeist in a way that most other musicals could only dream of. And now, as the show takes off on its first ever UK and Ireland tour, the fervour and excitement in Birmingham and the surrounding area for the show's arrival at the city's Hippodrome theatre has been at fever pitch, showing that these witches are as 'popular' as ever and just as adept at defying expectations as they are gravity.
But is all the hype and success deserved? In a word, yes. Undoubtedly so. Wicked is a musical of almost universal appeal, a cleverly constructed and wittily told tale of friendship, family, love, identity, the always-popular 'don't judge a book by its cover' morality, and enriched by dynamic, empathetic characters and a slew of utterly wonderful showtunes. Fundamentally, it gets practically every component of a successful musical absolutely right. And chances are, even if you have never seen Wicked before, you will still find yourself recognising at least a handful of the numbers, so absorbed into the cultural psyche as they have become (with the likes of Glee having bastardised the soundtrack ad nauseum). It also helps that despite the thoroughly human core which deals with such accessible issues as bullying, defiance, compassion, insecurity, sacrifice and the like, the show is distilled through the fantastical, colourful 'manifestorium' of Oz, offering plenty of scale, spectacle and visual excitement, and the whole thing kept buoyant and family-friendly by dint of being genuinely funny throughout, even during the second Act where events, naturally, take a turn for the grim(merie).
Young Elphaba Thropp is not your average Ozian (the whimsical world we all know and love from Dorothy Gale's adventures along the yellow brick road). Having grown up with a resentful father, emotionally detached and physically crippled sister, a mother who passed away when she was young, she also has to deal with the confidence-crushing issue of being entirely green and having a tendency for strange things to happen when she gets mad. No prizes for guessing where the character is heading. Yet Elphaba's journey to becoming the infamous 'Wicked Witch of the West' is not the atypical fall from grace/villains parable that one may first expect. Instead, through a mixture of her interactions with her fellow students, the frightfully airheaded Glinda (later 'the good') and debonair, cocksure young prince Fiyero, she begins on a path that will establish her as the ultimate anti-hero, as she begins to discover some darker truths about the lies being fed to the people of Oz, and making enemies of powerful people who are slowly robbing Oz and it's animal inhabitants in particular of much of their magic.
What's notable, not to mention beloved, about Wicked is it's layered, nuanced character work. Elphaba begins as the outsider and is instantly relatable, but as her cause downward spirals into a crusade, she too becomes a darker and more desperate character. 'Was I really seeing good, or just seeking attention?' she frustratedly questions during Act Two showstopper 'No Good Deed' after her efforts have lead to a significant death. Glinda, likewise, who is in many ways just as central a character, begins more akin to an ersatz playground bully, all appearance and surface, before revealing a more nurturing, staunch supportive side as the two witches grow closer together and their friendship crystalises to form the emotional crux of the show. She is the bubbly, savvy and peppy yin to Elphaba's cooler, more individual and reserved yang. The public face and persona to the brains behind the operation. And Glinda, too, comes to discover the perils of getting involved with those in power, and that getting your own way can be 'a little, well, complicated' but in very different ways to her green-skinned friend.
With the first half of the show setting up events before the arrival of Dorothy Gale in Oz, and barnstorming closer 'Defying Gravity' having neatly set up Elphaba as the villainous menace to the people of Oz that she would become famous for, the second throws in a lot of framing around the traditional Wizard of Oz story without, mercifully, really featuring much of Dorothy and her adventures at all. This is the witches story, and it is here that the cleverness of what Gregory Maguire and Winnie Holzman have done really pays dividends. There are appearances from a slew of recognisable characters, some of which you don't even realise have already been established in Act One, and we get to see some of the more significant moments from the original film put through the Wicked spectrum. And whilst it is still a little difficult to imagine the Elphaba we have seen developed throughout the show do and say some of the things Margaret Hamilton's cackling menace did in Wizard of Oz, fans of the original film and story will get a lot of mileage from the clever re-handling and re-imagining done here.
And alongside its clever, inventive and character-driven tale comes spectacle in abundance. Fortunately, Wicked on tour looks just as spectacular and colourful as you will find it in the West End, which is certainly no mean feat. The stunning set design, exquisite, elaborate costumes and vibrant lighting burst and dazzle with the same Tony-award winning vim and vigour as ever. It's an opulent, sumptuous treat, and even the shows bigger set pieces, such as the grandiose arrival of the 'Wizard' himself, nigh-deafening and swathing the audience in beams of rainbow light, or the 'Ozmopolitan' excitement and lampoonery of 'One Short Day' have as much impact and presence here as they ever have. There are minor beats and moments which have had to be slightly amended due to the absence of a descending trapdoor, for instance, which the West End version has built-in, but the creative ways the show takes around the problem are just as effective.
This standard of excellence also continues, mercifully, to the tour's ensemble cast, as even given the fantastic foundations to work with as mentioned above, it is not unknown for some productions of Wicked to flounder or fail to reach the shows potential due to a sub-par cast. Coventry-born Liam Doyle makes a dashing, youthful Fiyero, and is particularly impressive at the characters' more boastful moments, adding an extraordinary kinetic energy and some duly impressive moves to his big 'Dancing through Life' number. Despite this he is, almost paradoxically, one of the more humble and empathetic Fiyero's, with a real sense that a lot of his admittedly excellent swagger and soft-shoeing is a front and show for the more down-to-earth nice guy underneath, which works particularly well indeed come the second Act. Dale Ripley gets kudos for playing both fearful and justifiably paranoid goat lecturer Dr Dillamond as well as a clownish, borderline camp Wizard of Oz whom elicited a healthy number of laughs from the audience in his moments of self-absorbed waxing lyrical and monologuing. Marilyn Cutts is the ultimate Madame Morrible, the show's actual wicked witch, and laces even her more innocent moments with plenty of venom and viciousness, with a suitably devious dash of sycophant and lickspittle where necessary. Carina Gillespie is 'tragically beautiful' and hauntingly perfect as Elphaba's cold, somewhat detached sister Nessarose who, the more astute will have already realised, goes on to become another named character in the Oz universe. Gillespie showcased crisp, powerful vocals and a more desperate edge than seen in previous interpretations of the character, and it made for an incredibly compelling and commanding turn. Gillespie also occasionally understudies Glinda, and having seen her in the role in Cardiff, is equally splendid there.
But Wicked, of course, belongs to its leading ladies, and here the tour has absolutely come up aces. Emily Tierney demonstrates comedic timing and prowess with Glinda as hilarious and honed as any who have come before her, mining pathos or humour at every turn. It's an incredibly instinctive and attuned comedic tour-de-force, though Tierney hits the more sombre and tender moments for Glinda with equal relish and clout as well. Whereas other 'Glindas' save a lot of the funny for big moments such as 'Popular', there were points even during the likes of 'Thank Goodness' where it was difficult to not find oneself tittering away at Tierney's subtle mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. She wholly inhabits the role and is an absolute joy to watch.
The tour's standby Elphaba, Jemma Alexander, had the chance to perform for Birmingham's press night due to principle Nikki Davis-Jones being unwell, and gave what was quite possibly the most likeable and endearing, and thoroughly British, Elphaba I've yet seen. Having seen Nikki perform in Cardiff, they offer two quite different interpretations of the role, with Davis-Jones a somewhat more deadpan and cynical Elphaba to Jemma Alexander's more optimistic and passionate young witch. Both give great vocals and do a stunning job with the huge numbers they inherit, and whereas Alexander's performance is perhaps a little more typical and safe than Davis-Jones', her Elphaba feels a touch more invested in and affected by the events around her. And, strangely, Alexander's heightened passion translates well to the character's more vengeful and embittered arc in the second half of the show where she truly seems to grow in stature (thank the hat), confidence and presence moreso than perhaps Davis-Jones did. It's also encouraging to see the show's standby tearing down the house with the likes of 'defying gravity' and 'no good deed', her renditions of both of which were superlatively good. Ultimately though, regardless of which Elphaba audiences may experience, it is further indicative of the ludicrously high standard of talent assembled for the tour with Davis-Jones and Alexander both offering brilliant, barnstorming takes on the character and supremely impressive leading turns.
Goodness knows there are plenty more reasons to recommend Wicked than even this almost scandalacious-ly in-depth review of the show has been able to champion, so coming full circle, one of the earliest points seems the most prudent and final - Wicked is a huge, beloved musical success story because it gets so many things so very right. It is a musical whose music soars and rides the same witty, insightful foray as its engaging, funny, insightful and brilliantly adapted book. It is a lavish, thrilling production that entertains in abundance and takes an audience on a fantastical fairytale and flight of fancy through a strange world whilst simultaneously telling an intensely human tale. And in taking Wicked on tour, the producers, talent and craftsmen involved have jetted no single speck of splendour, scale or Ozdust to boldly assure that there is no reason to adjourn to London; Wicked on tour is the full experience, par excellence.
As the relieved Ozian chorus sound out at the beginning and end of the show, 'No One Mourns the Wicked', but there will be plenty to mourn when Wicked flies out of Birmingham this September, so be sure to grab a ticket to the theatre event of the summer whilst you can.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)
+ One of the most successful and beloved musicals with reason
+ Stunning touring production as impressive as West End
+ Excellent cast across-the-board
+ Holzman's book and Schwartz's music as clever, witty, entertaining and moving as ever
+ Standby/understudy Elphaba and Glinda's are exceptionally good
+ Equally impressive + disciplined ensemble
+ First ever UK tour!
WICKED is running at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Wednesday 09 July to Saturday 06 September 2014.
Alternatively, call Ticket Sales directly on 0844 338 5000 now to book your tickets!
Press tickets for this performance of Wicked were provided courtesy of the Birmingham Hippodrome directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.