Seemingly evergreen musical spectacular Wicked swept into Milton Keynes Theatre this week and it is set to cast its spell over hordes of fans during a month-long stay.
Wicked is the untold story of the witches from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and this witty re-imagining of the unlikely but profound friendship between two sorcery students now has a cult following.
Based on a 1995 novel titled Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, the magical show has broken box office records around the world since its 2003 debut.
There is so much to wonder about in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Just why did Dorothy find herself in Oz? How did the Lion come to be so very cowardly? What happened to the Tin Man’s heart? Has the Wicked Witch of the West always been wicked?
Wicked addresses all of these questions — and more — through an all-singing, all-dancing exploration of how adolescent angst, the pursuit of popularity and blinkered narrow-mindedness converge to shape our life choices. The setting is a fantastical land inhabited by Munchkins, talking animals and beings with supernatural powers. Yet the narrative and characters still manage to remain easy to relate to thanks to the irresistible combination of fairytale morality and toe-tapping tunes.
The plot begins before, and continues after, Dorothy’s arrival in Oz from Kansas and focuses on how Elphaba (the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (the Good Witch of the North) came to be the witches they are today. Girl power certainly rules in this production. The two lead characters are iconic female roles and Emily Tierney (as Glinda) and Nikki Davis-Jones (Elphaba) are enchanting (and presumably exhausted after each show as they are barely offstage all evening).
Our leading ladies succeed in creating a warm partnership. Their dynamic, endearing duets leave the audience fully believing that the preening Glinda and her green-faced adversary/best friend forever are the epitome of a real-life, fickle, girly friendship. Personality clashes, rivalry over a shared love-interest and reactionary responses to the hero-worshipped Wizard’s corrupt regime keep the plot lively and entertaining.
Time flies, the action is well-paced and scenes shift seamlessly.
On the subject of time – the Time Dragon Clock is a startling set design feature which reigns over the auditorium. Generally, the sets and aesthetics are amazing. For a touring production, designers Eugene Lee (scenic), Kenneth Posner (lighting) and Elaine J. McCarthy (projection) have ensured a first-class calibre of ingenious technical wizardry and scene-setting sorcery.
The whole Wicked experience is visually very striking. From the costumes to the sets, the fanciful, almost unearthly realm of Oz (and later the luminescent Emerald City) is skilfully and imaginatively presented – this is pure escapism.
Elphaba’s very public fall from grace is exceptionally well-portrayed throughout Wicked. There is definitely more to this witch than meets the eye (to claim that she is misunderstood does not even come close).
Wicked begins as the citizens of Oz celebrate the death of the Wicked Witch of the West (aka Elphaba). The dazzling Glinda (the too-good-to-be-true figurehead of a witch has a selection of gorgeous, sparkling frocks, each adorned with almost 100,000 sequins) arrives and recalls that the green-skinned Elphaba was conceived during an affair between the Munchkin governor’s wife and a mysterious stranger carrying a bottle of green elixir.
Everyone is repulsed by Elphaba and appalled by her recent mutinous behaviour. Despite Glinda’s pleas for them to empathise, the Ozians cannot understand how Glinda could have once been friends with such a wicked witch. The rest of the musical is an extended flashback following Glinda and Elphaba from when they met as students at Shiz University, right up until the present day.
As students go, Elphaba is the archetypal social outcast. Her appearance immediately repels her fellow scholars and her fierce determination to protect her wheelchair-bound sister, Nessarose, means her short temper and sharp tongue are easily misconstrued. Meanwhile, Glinda – or Galinda (“with a ‘ga’”) as we discover she was known as upon registration at the university – is a shallow, spoilt and popular blonde beauty. She instantly makes friends wherever she goes and is used to getting her own way – but this looks set to change when the pair are made to share a room.
The moral message is, of course, the typical ‘ugly duckling’ story of an individual who is mocked for being different but uses those differences to thrive and truly become herself.
Teenage girls are clearly a target audience. The trials of friendship, insecurities concerning looks and the subsequent makeovers, along with youthful crushes will strike a chord with many young women. Still, finding yourself; remaining true to your beliefs and standing up against the majority — not to mention fighting racism and prejudice and protecting freedom of speech — are themes that any theatregoer will identify with.
As you would expect from a landmark musical, there is plenty of wizardry with lighting. Flying is used throughout, which never fails to impress. Still, all the smoke and mirrors would be meaningless without the stellar performances from the cast. The leads belt out their power ballads, vocalizing their trials and tribulations in spine-tingling songs, including the monumental Defying Gravity. Notably, there is not a single dud musical number in the show.
My advice is to “rejoicify” in the quirky word play. Wicked has some hilarious lyrics and amusing one liners which incorporate just the right number of references to other musicals (including The Wizard of Oz).
George Ure as the eager Munchkin, Boq, is brilliant, as is Liam Doyle as the cavalier, suave Fiyero (a prince who captures the hearts of both Glinda and Elphaba when he arrives on campus).
Familiar characters are thrown into surprising situations, while explanations are given for events and circumstances you might never have thought to question.We may know their ultimate destinies but Wicked brings these witches’ extraordinary adventures in Oz to life in an unforgettable musical extravaganza.
I guarantee you will be green with envy if you do not conjure up tickets for the show.
Wicked continues its run at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 8th March 2014.
An extract of this review was published in the print edition of the MK Citizen GO! supplement.