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October 02, 2006

Green but not mean: Stephen Schwartz's musical Wicked at the Apollo Victoria

Posted by David Conway

Stephen Schwartz's musical Wicked
Apollo Victoria Theatre, London

David Conway is bewitched by an engaging musical subversion of the Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz never really turned me on, and Judy Garland has always very definitely turned me off. So the idea of a musical vindication of the Wicked Witch of the West was bound to have some innate appeal. I am delighted to report that Stephen Schwartz's musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire's fantasy novel, Wicked, carries it off with great panache. And the sensational performance of Idina Menzel as the Wicked Witch, Elphaba, for which she won a Tony Award after creating the role in New York two years ago, is in itself worth any detour.

Before I did some cursory research on Oz for this review, I frankly had no idea that the originally book by L. Frank Baum is supposed by some to resonate with political significance. Does for example the Yellow Brick Road have connotations of bimetallism? I leave such issues for political writers on the SAU Review to expound - fortunately Wicked gives no hint of these though there are a few, and rather clumsy, sideswipes at modern America which may be charitably ignored. As far as I can see Schwartz, who wrote both the music and the libretto, has only previously been represented in London by the cringeworthy Godspell, but that was admittedly more than thirty years ago. Wicked manages to weld folk mythology with wit and a spectacular production that may allow us to discreetly erase the composer's earlier follies.

This is, at heart, a story of friendship triumphing over deceit, rivalry and greenness. Elphaba, having had the misfortune to be born bright emerald, goes to Shiz University to accompany her crippled sister Nessarose, where she becomes by accident room-mate of the blonde Prom Queen Galinda (Helen Dallimore) - cue for an exuberant duet ("ev'ry little trait, however small/ makes my very flesh begin to crawl/ with simple utter loathing"). They even fall for the same guy, the preppy Prince Fiyero (Adam Garcia) - but gradually growing respect moves towards a genuine mutual affection.

Elphaba's talent for spells catches the attention of principal Madam Morrible (Miriam Margolyes) who arranges for her to meet the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Nigel Planer). How and why the intrigues of Morrible and Oz bring about the death of Nessarose, the arrival in Oz of Dorothy (whose presence I am glad to say only registers offstage), the vilification of Elphaba and the elevation of Galinda as "Glinda, Good Witch of the South"; and how, despite many switchbacks, the friendship of Galinda and Elphaba preserves itself to the end - you will have to see for yourself.

Menzel and Gallimore (who is new to the show) are central to the piece's success and their duos and scenes in various moods are perhaps the most successful individual numbers. I must mention the Act I curtain, where Elphaba summons her magic powers to fly away from the mob set on her by the Wizard; it is consummate in every way, and Menzel rides not only her broomstick, but the audience and the very theatre itself in her intensity. Of the other principals only Nigel Planer is a slight disappointment - he doesn't seem to have the aggressive "larger-than-lifeness" that American musicals require, but perhaps this will come to him during the run. Gallimore's Australian origins maybe allow her to eschew any reserve, and she deals excellently with her "operatic" good-goody moments as well as with the more raucous episodes.

The production is engagingly and ingeniously designed, with the large stage enclosed so as to make a relatively small company - energetically choreographed - seem larger than it is. There is plenty of spectacular effect, and imaginative lighting. Frankly, there is a drawback when it comes to the musical's structure. The first half, leading to Elphaba's apotheosis as a witch, is impeccably structured. In the second half, an awful lot happens in a short time, into which are also inserted (very amusingly, admittedly) innumerable references to, and inversions of, the original Wizard story. To enable this, a number of things just suddenly happen without much supporting information. I can see why Schwarz didn't want to let go of any of it, but it gets perilously near to risking indigestion and/or confusion. But don't let this pedantic niggle put you off if you are at all minded to see Wicked, which as entertainment is, in the words of Edmund Blackadder's comrade Lord Percy, a nugget of the purest green.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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I went to see Wicked on its third night... I am a keen musical goer and currently study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. I have to say that I though this was the poorest musical I have ever seen. THe opening was weak and not at all luring... idina menzel has a unique voice though one which she doesnt seem to be able to keep maintain the tuning of in defying gravity... many of the classroom scenes with the goat just go on and on... my parents and I had to remind ourselves there was a show going on. If you want to see some real musical magis; stick to les mis, the producers, blood brothers and now Avenue Q.... wicked certainly wasnt wicked!

Posted by: Nadeem Crowe at November 26, 2006 03:28 PM
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