No musical as weird or steeped
in fairy-tale magic as Wicked has cast its multi-million
pound spell upon the London stage in decades.
I pleasurably recall the climactic, closing minutes
of the first act when Idina Menzel's spectacular,
green-faced Wicked Witch of the West, who slips
easily into a pointy black hat, shoots into the
rainbow-coloured air on her broomstick.
She sings, as she goes, a hymn to getting the better
of the world - Defying Gravity - while her black
cloak grows at least 12 feet tall. She is poised
to lead the fight against Nigel Planer's bland but
sinister Wizard of Oz who looks like George Bush
and whose mission to cage all animals has made him
her public enemy number one.
You think you detect an adult, political satirical
allegory simmering away beneath the magical surface?
You are right to. The musical's chief concern is
to warn adults in the audience against simplistic
(Bush-like) concepts of good and evil, but you would
need to have read Gregory Maguire's recent adult
novel on which Wicked's own, less politicised but
amusing book is based, to be able to pick up or
savour the serious nuances.
Meanwhile the impressive and not untypical scene
which I describe is designed to make children of
us all and persuade us to pack up all our real-life
Yet Defying Gravity, with unexceptional musical
accompaniment and just competent lyrics by Stephen
Schwartz, has already left my mind. For Wicked,
it turns out, belongs in a rare pantheon of musicals
in which the music does not matter much. Only Dancing
Through Life, with lyrics that urge you to keep
smiling through, ranks as memorable.
Otherwise it is the spectacle, the experience of
a magical mystery tour through the fantasy land
of Oz that takes and holds attention. If Mary Poppins
and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are far more to my deeply
juvenile tastes, when it comes to inventive make
believe Wicked more than lives up to its name.
Sailing on the waves of escapist fantasy on which
many of us depend for pleasure, the musical tracks
back to the celluloid Wizard of Oz. It begins where
the movie ends and dreams up a fresh narrative from
the witches' viewpoints. Dying, danger and the shock
of weirdness are faced in this land where monkeys
have wings and animals teach humans.
Wayne Cilento's set reeks of magic potential. A
winged dragon looks down from the rafters. A giant
clock with huge wheels of time frames the action.
The Wizard exists on a throne protected by a giant,
gold face mask whose features shimmer. Idina Menzel's
bespectacled "wicked" Witch of the West Elphaba,
sports plaited hair, a turban and charisma, though
her singing voice is not consistently audible.
Elphaba seems an absolute outsider at Shiz University
where Miriam Margolyes's gorgeously comic Madame
Morrible recommends her for sorcery studies. In
comparison Helen Dallimore's squeaky-voiced blonde
Glinda reeks of goodness.
The arrival of Adam Garcia's unnecessarily dull
Prince Fiyero, whom each girl longs to marry, precipitates
a clash of wills and wiles in Oz that involve Elphaba's
wheelchair-bound sister, Nessarosa (Katie Rowley
Jones) and the realisation that neither people nor
the world itself are quite what they seem.
Joe Mantello's production expertly marshals this
remarkable kaleidoscope of magical shocks, surprises
and sensations. Wicked works like a dream.
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