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Publishing Newspaper: The Daily Telegraph
Date: 28th September 2006
Author: Charles Spencer
Photo Credit: Alistair Muir

Flawed, but witches' spell still works

Despite all my best endeavours, I have never found myself capable of becoming a friend of Dorothy.

The much loved 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz gives me the creeps and as Dorothy and her cute male friends wend their way along the yellow brick road, I feel more like throwing up than applauding.

Those ghastly Munchkins, the tooth-rotting sweetness of the Good Witch, the ghastly cracker-barrel wisdom - all of it torture, like slowly drowning in a sea of Technicolor kitsch. This surely is a film for girls and gays.

So it was with no great hopes that I made my way to this stage prequel, which tells the back-story of the good witch Glinda, and of the malevolent green-faced rival, Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.

Despite receiving indifferent reviews, Wicked, based on a novel by Gregory Maguire and with songs by Stephen Schwartz of Godspell fame, has become an enduringly lucrative hit in New York. It is apparently especially favoured by adolescent girls and watching this unexpectedly witty, enjoyable though far from flawless show it's easy to see why.

Essentially Wicked tells the story of two archetypal young women who meet at Shiz university (which bears a strong similarity to Harry Potter's Hogwarts) and graduate to the wider world of Oz where life is turning decidedly sinister.

Glinda is a beautiful, spoilt blonde airhead, popular with everyone, almost always getting her own way, and inclined to stamp her feet when she doesn't. Elphaba in contrast, is an outcast, because she was born with green skin, distrusted and mocked by everyone except her crippled sister. Needless to say the pair become deadly rivals before they discover that they are actually bosom buddies, and the account of fickle girly relationships is told with wit and panache.

But the piece is also a faintly paranoid allegory of present-day America. The folksy Wizard of Oz bears a more than passing resemblance to George W Bush in Nigel Planer's performance, and in his persecution of oz's talking animals we re surely meant to discern parallels with America's current bellicosity and its feat of alien cultures as it wages it was against terror.

The popular Glinda tries to stay out of trouble and find romance with Adam Garcia's prince. The "wicked" Elphaba, in contract, becomes a broom-flying freedom fighter on behalf of Oz's dispossessed. Gradually however the roles are reversed.

At times the show undoubtedly slips into the preachy, but mercifully Winnie Holzman's script keeps the gags coming as it cleverly subverts the film that spawned it. And Joe Mantello's production, on a Heath Robinsonish design by Eugene Lee, is packed with spectacular coups de theatre and some magical lighting effects by Kenneth Posner.

Stephen Schwartz's lyrics are occasionally touched with wit, but what he really specialises in are the big gloopy ballads that allow the two female leads to stand centre stage and soar into the stratospheric. This they do with some style.

Idina Menzel, visiting from Broadway where she won a Tony for her performance, offers a winning powerhouse performance as Elphaba, a green, female Harry Potter who suffers dreadfully as she tries to do magical good, and sings of her trials and tribulations with astonishing displays of vocal power.

Helen Dallimore is at times laugh-out-loud funny as the pert, preening Glinda, who loves no one quite as much as herself, and these two performers create a genuinely warm and sparky on-stage relationship.

No one could accuse Wicked of being a great musical - indeed at times it's a bit of a mess - but it proves far more enjoyable that I had dared hope, and deserves a wider audience than adolescent schoolgirls.

Article © The Daily Telegraph/ Charles Spencer, 2006

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