One of the cleverest aspects of Wicked is Gregory Maguire's story. Audiences are so familiar with L Frank Baum's source material - or rather, the 1939 film adaptation of it - that much character introduction can be dispensed of because the audience already knows who almost everybody is (or is going to be).
And that's where the beauty of the narrative shines brightest - Wicked starts out as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, then the narrative overlaps with that of the film, and by the end it's running concurrently with it. The ease with which the story on the stage enhances and expands the audience's established knowledge is masterful, and it's a delight to join up the dots. It's the joy of being able to pause the film and say: "Meanwhile, over there..."
Two things you won't see in Wicked, however, are the ruby slippers, but that's no surprise when you learn that Baum originally wrote them as silver, and it was only MGM that turned them red to capitalise on a new-fangled thing called Technicolor. As a result, any future Oz adaptations have to pay through the nose to feature ruby slippers, as Disney did for 1985's Return to Oz but didn't for 2013's Oz: The Great and Powerful. Those behind Wicked haven't bothered with ruby slippers either, preferring to go back to Baum's source in a fruitless effort to reclaim the original silver slip-ons.
One thing that has been lifted from the MGM film is the appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West (humanised here with an actual name, Elphaba - see if you can guess how the name came about). After MGM's blockbuster hit, the template for all witches seems to have been set at green, warty-faced, pointy-nosed hags with conical black hats and stripey tights. Baum's witch was a one-eyed crone with three pig-tails. I think Wicked was wise to stick with the archetype.
Wicked is Elphaba's story, telling the tale of The Wizard of Oz from another perspective, and refreshingly so. You get to see Elphaba and her sister's early lives, the relationship they have with one another, and goody-two-shoes Glinda the Good (the "aar" is silent), and how the events of The Wizard of Oz come about quite naturally, and understandably in parts. It's all down to love, you see, unrequited or unfulfilled. The schmaltz sometimes gets a little too overwhelming, both musically and narratively, but at least it's in keeping with the sugar-sweet baseline MGM gave us, and for that it's fitting.
Stephen Schwartz's musical numbers are grandiose, sweeping and goosebump-inducingly epic, the obvious big-hitter being Defying Gravity, surely one of the most memorable songs written for a new musical this century. If anyone writing the score for a musical wants to know how best to end Act 1, they need look no further than Wicked - it sends shivers up the spine and leaves you gasping for more. The spectacle is breathtaking.
In fact, there's spectacle throughout, as you might expect with a trip to a luminescent locale such as Oz. Highly effective is the Wizard's giant head contraption (something else pinched from MGM), its booming voice rocking the theatre and putting on a genuinely intimidating show. Susan Hilferty's costume design is equally as splendid, tipping a very direct nod to the 1939 film by capitalising on the Emerald City's chlorophyll-drenched theme, complete with topiary hats and Windsor glasses.
I love the eccentric use of language too, the twisting of words to change the form but not the meaning - bravery becomes braverism, scandalous becomes scandalacious, congratulations becomes congratulotions. It adds colour and depth to the land of Oz, and an undercurrent of comic absurdity to the production.
As for the cast, they are obviously flying at the top of their game. The role of Elphaba is a demanding one: whoever plays her needs to have a hell of a set of lungs to deal with the big numbers in the repertoire, but Ashleigh Gray is more than capable of coping with the demands. Marilyn Cutts makes for a no-nonsense Madame Morrible too, going from likeable mother figure in Act 1 to hateful villainess in Act 2. Morrible is a non-Baum creation, helping the Wizard with his machinations, but the blatant inability of the narrative to work her into the established Wizard of Oz mythology (where is she in the film when all this is going on?) is obvious. To say she's merely working behind the scenes doesn't quite hack it (although is all too literal).
Steven Pinder is excellent in the dual roles of Dr Dillamond, the tragic goat-headed schoolmaster whose fate brings the Wizard's plot sharply into focus, as well as the Wonderful Wizard himself. This doubling up of duties is a lovely nod to the mirrored roles of the film, although the practicalities of live performance don't allow Boq actor Richard Vincent to double up as the Tin Man, however much they try to convince us otherwise.
|Emily Tierney as Glinda|
As much as I love the parallels Wicked draws with the narrative of The Wizard of Oz, there are a couple of cracks I have to wonder about: in the film, it's not long after leaving Munchkinland that Dorothy encounters the Scarecrow, but in Wicked, when Dorothy is sent off on her quest along the Yellow Brick Road, the Scarecrow hasn't even been created yet. And when Elphaba is supposedly destroyed by Dorothy's bucket of water, it doesn't marry up with the same point in the film where Dorothy is actually trying to put out the flames the Witch has used to burn the Scarecrow. When Maguire gave the Scarecrow such an all-important origins story, he struggled to make it a seamless match for established lore, and it's glossed over just enough to blind casual viewers, but to a true aficionado of the MGM film, it's all too transparent.
Wicked is an entertaining night out, if slightly overlong at almost three hours (including interval). The songs are solid, strong, powerful numbers - some perhaps dwarfed by the genius of Defying Gravity - while the design and characterisation are spot on (if a little wobbly in the mythology department sometimes). It's a good family show which works best if you know The Wizard of Oz well, but which is a fine story on its own. We may only get a glimpse of Dorothy and the Yellow Brick Road, but the spirit of Judy Garland and the genius of Victor Fleming (and the menagerie of other directors who took charge of the film for a time) shines through brightly.
Note: Still struggling to figure out the origins of the name Elphaba?
It's made up phonetically from the initials of Oz's creator, L Frank Baum = (e)L - F(a) - B(a).
Writer: Stephen Scwhwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book) based on the novel by Gregory Maguire (based on characters created by L Frank Baum)
Director: Joe Mantello
Cast: Emily Tierney (Glinda); Brian McCann (Witch's father); Chrissy Brooke (Witch's mother); Wendy-Lee Purdy (Midwife); Ashleigh Gray (Elphaba); Carina Gillespie (Nessarose); Richard Vincent (Boq); Marilyn Cutts (Madame Morrible); Steven Pinder (Dr Dillamond; Wonderful Wizard of Oz); Samuel Edwards (Fiyero); Harrison Clark (Chistery). Other roles played by Ben Carruthers, Lauren Ellis-Steele, Oliver Evans, Victoria Farley, Natasha Ferguson, Zoe George, Will Knights, Tom Mather, Ashley Morgan-Davies, Stephanie Powell, Elisha Sherman, Grant Thresh, Hannah Veerapen.
Performed at The Lowry, Salford Quays, June 3rd to July 25th, 2015. Performance reviewed: July 10th, 2015.
Wicked on The Lowry website (retrieved July 13th 2015)
Wicked tour website (retrieved July 13th 2015)
Wicked trailer (retrieved July 13th 2015)
Ashleigh Gray interviewed on the role of Elphaba (retrieved July 13th 2015)