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Newspaper: London Review
Date: 28th September 2006
Author: Unknown

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 troubles.

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.

Article © London Review, 2006

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