Wicked, The Untold Story of The Witches of Oz stops for its only Scottish dates in this 2018 tour at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh from Tue 8 May to Sat 9 June and brings to stage one of the world’s most successful and loved stage musicals.
Based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”, this musical production with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman gives us a completely new angle to view some of our favourite characters from L. Frank Baum's classic 1900 story “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” , and of course the classic 1939 MGM film starring Judy Garland –“The Wizard of Oz” (not the first or last film version, but the one nearly everyone remembers).
Wicked the stage show is by any standards a huge and expensive production, and that shows everywhere –particularly in the costumes and the set design. Wicked has over the years been seen by millions of theatre goers world wide, so what is the secret of its success? Well, basing everything on one of the best loved children’s books of all time has certainly played a big part in this success, but it is more than that. Audiences have taken this twist on the story equally to their hearts as we explore the unlikely friendship between Glinda the good witch and The Wicked Witch of the West – given a name now for the first time, Elphaba. This name itself is a loving phonetic tribute to author L. Frank Baum, (ElPha(F)Ba). Some classic songs including “Defying Gravity”, “No Good Deed” and “I’m Not That Girl” complete the package to Wicked the rightly deserved musical stage show phenomenon that it has become.
Having said all the above, something is just not right in the Land of Oz tonight, and it is not only that the animals have stopped talking and the Munchkins are losing their civil liberties, a little of the magic seems not to be here at times, and I am not sure what the reason is. Perhaps part of the problem is that “Wicked” the show and our two leading witches are larger than any one person, and it becomes all too easy for someone to become the characters almost by numbers, or like putting on a costume. Amy Ross (Elphaba) and Helen Woolf (Glinda) give solid performances in their respective roles, but neither seems to be taking the opportunity at times to stamp their authority and individual identity onto these roles. As mentioned before though, this is incredibly hard to do with such clearly defined characters. The role of Glinda also requires a very light comedy touch and timing and at times that touch was a little heavy tonight. Glinda always though has the most difficult of the roles here as so much of the focus is on Elphaba. When you leave the theatre, which of the two stands out the most in your mind, the character, or the performer? That is always going to be the question with iconic roles like these.
Wicked can be a bit of an odd show as it is really two shows in one, and our opening act as it centres on the meeting of our two lead witches at college takes its time to establish everyone’s identity and personality, and at times can be a bit like an old episode of some American college Television comedy of the 1990s. There are though some great one liners here, and Glinda gets most of them to herself. Our second act though is far different, far darker and takes many of us into the far more familiar territory of the story line that we all know (albeit with twists and turns and a new ending). This second half is where Amy Ross starts to make this show more her Elphaba. Emily Shaw as Nessarose (Elphaba’s sister) also finally gets real involvement in the plot here and the link between classic film and classic musical is made in some great one liners about “Shoes” by Elphaba and Glinda.
Aaron Sidwell (Fiyero), Kim Ismay (Madame Morrible), Iddon Jones (Boq) and Steven Pinder (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz/Doctor Dillamond) put in some solid work in their respective roles, and Steven Pinder does a great job on that song and dance routine of his.
I am always though left puzzled why someone as powerful as Elphaba ever gets captured by the soldiers so easily as we have seen before just how powerful her magic has become.
Wicked of course is always working on more than one level (all the great and successful shows do) and there are real messages here of being yourself, acceptance of people without regard for their appearance, and true friendship that enriches everyone involved. Also we have dire warnings on the loss of freedom of speech and our civil liberties if we allow those in power to take them away from us without fighting for them. Our messages may be at times very heavily sugar coated or not too subtle in their delivery, but they are nevertheless important ones, and a big part of the continued success of “Wicked” over the past 15 years. I just hope that no one ever tries to “tweak” this show and make some messages “relevant to times” as it simply does not need it. Like the 1939 film, they got everything right first time round.
This show is a true theatrical experience despite any little misgivings I may have about it in parts here. Wicked is what going to musical theatre is all about. Here you can immerse yourself in a fantasy world of colour, costume, light and sound that television or DVDs just cannot compete with. This show is not only a huge performance production, but one of the slickest technical productions out there at the moment with seamless changes of sets timed to the second and complemented by light and sound crews at every stage.
If the applause at the end of every number and the standing ovation at the end of the show are anything to go by, this run of Wicked at The Playhouse Theatre is going to be a massive 2018 success.
Review by Tom King