Sometimes in life, you just need a spectacle. A special night out to look forward to, something out of the ordinary; Wicked is what you’re looking for on all counts.
A Broadway and West End smash over the last decade, the show – in case you didn’t know – tells the ‘untold story’ of the witches of Oz, and begins with the chorus celebrating the death of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, with the good fairy Glinda heralding in a new age of peace. But was the story as we know it how it really happened? Not according to Winnie Holzman’s book, a clever and intricate mix of unexpected new insights that play on the knowledge of the original story and film.
There is a grand operatic beginning with No-one Mourns the Wicked, that tells the story of Elphaba’s birth (and to be fair, even the most highbrow opera can sometimes feature plot devices as fantastically absurd as “the baby is unnaturally green”), before the story unfurls. It turns out Glinda and Elphaba went way back – and things were not as straightforward as they seemed.
For a musical filled with show-stopping set pieces, some of the most lavish and intriguing stage design ever seen on the Empire stage, and dozens bright and highly-detailed couture costumes, the remarkable Ashleigh Gray transcends it all, bringing sympathy and humanity to ‘wicked’ Elpheba and giving a quite stunning performance. For all the aforementioned spectacle, some of the most spine-tingling musical moments come when there is little on the stage but her alone, such as The Wizard and I and No Good Deed.
For this reviewer, it’s not a musical filled with the catchiest tunes (although Dan Jackson’s orchestra is one of the finest I’ve heard at the Empire), but the premise and the wordplay are clever and more intelligent than most. Emily Tierney’s good fairy Glinda brings a big dollop of camp to the proceedings and the kooky act comes together in the end to demonstrate the ‘odd couple’ pairing of the two witches. The two performers shine during the show’s breakout song, Defying Gravity. and again during the tear-jerking For Good. Former Brookside actor Stephen Pinder was almost unrecognisable as the Wizard, and Marilyn Cutts seemed to channel her inner Bette Middler for baddie Madam Morrible.
With a bit of a Shrek-style closing message about loving people as they are, an insight coming from a character with magical powers that had been judged for her skin colour throughout the show, it was amusing to come out and hear an audience member pondering how Wicked was far-fetched and she didn’t get why popular Glinda would be friends with somebody green. So it just goes to show you can’t win ’em all. But for most, although Wicked is not a cheap ticket, for a treat of a night out it very much seemed to be worth it.