Wicked

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

BIG budget, Broadway musicals have a style and pizazz you find nowhere else and this is one that will be turning Birmingham a glorious shade of green for the rest of the summer.

It is snappy, witty, slick and above all fun telling the, Glindauntil now, untold tale of the Wicked Witch of the West, the original WWW, who is the embodiment of evil and mistress of all things that go bump in the night in The Wizard of Oz.

For those unfamiliar with the 1939 film Dorothy, and her Kansas home are carried to Oz by a tornado, landing, conveniently and somewhat fatally, upon Nessarose, the Wicked Witch of the East, prompting a vow of revenge from the Wicked one’s equally evil sister, Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, who does not take kindly to her sister being squashed

Squashed witches though are a cause for delight among the populous led by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North . . . and that is where the Wicked story starts.

Emily Tierney putting the dizzy into blonde as Glinda

Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, with book by Winnie Holzman, we find Elphaba’s story is one not so much evil but of social exclusion – not everyone takes to green skinned girls apparently - and of betrayal.

On Press night Elphaba was played by standby Jemma Alexander, not that anyone could possibly feel let down or cheated by the change to the programme cast; the regular Wicked Witch, Nikki Davis-Jones, herself a former standby for the West End production, must be out of this world because her standby, Alexander, was simply superb.

She was funny, had a lovely voice full of soaring power or soft and subtle as silk depending upon the moment, she could act and, most important, long before the end you actually cared about her, she had brought Elphaba to life.

If she was the star of the show it was a mighty close run thing with Emily Tierney as Glinda who was more than glood, (sorry, couldn’t resist it) she was excellent. Tierney, who played the relatively minor role of Glinda in the 2011 Andrew Lloyd Fiyero and ElphabaWebber and Tim Rice production of The Wizard of Oz in the West End, has a beautiful voice, looks good, and plays the rich, spoiled, bimbo blonde to perfection – with impeccable timing.

The female leads are given good support by Liam Doyle as Fiyero, the playboy Winkie Prince who proves he is not as shallow as he seems and Dale Rapley who doubles up as both Dr Dillamond, the “token goat” and last of the animal teachers at Shiz University and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, played as a cross between a carpetbagger snake oil salesman and a song and dance man. He was really a baddy but played with such charm and style it was hard to hate him.

Then there is Marilyn Cutts as headmistress of Shiz and part-time sorceress, played with a tongue in cheek wickedness as she carried out the wizards will, and we have Nessarose, the foundation of the piece, or at least that is where she ends up under Dorothy’s Kansas farmhouse.

Liam Doyle as Fiyero with Nikki Davis-Jones as Elphaba, the part played by Jemma Alexander on Press night

Elphaba’s crippled sister is played sweetly and demurely by Carina Gillepie, until she gets a bit of power that is, when she then becomes a wheelchariot bound despot to control the love of her life Boq played by George Ure.

Poor old Boq made the mistake of inviting Nessa to a dance merely to impress Glinda and ended up with a life sentence tied to his one life stand.

And keeping everything moving along at a cracking pace is a large ensemble who play everything from flying monkeys, to Munchkins to inhabitants of the Emerald City, Dear Old Shiz students, and anyone else with bags of energy and enthusiasm as ell as sounding glood . . .  I must stop doing that.

The link with L Frank Baum’s original story and the 1939 film based upon it is always there and as we  journey through Elphaba’s life to the arrival of Dorothy and Toto we learn about the scarecrow, the lion and the tin man – and the red shoes.

It is all good fun and brilliantly done on a setting by Eugene Lee around a clock with 13 numerals, designs which won the show a Toni as did the fabulous costumes from Susan Hilferty. The cast also sport some equally fabulous wigs and hair by Tom Watson, and the whole thing is lit wonderfully by Kenneth Posner.

Director Joe Mantello keeps up a cracking pace with scene changes lasting no longer than actors walking off and on stage as sets glide silently in and out, up and down while James Lynn Abbott’s dance arrangements help give the show zip and vitality.

As for the music . . . Wicked fails to produce a truly memthe Wizard of Ozorable song, but perhaps that is not the point. The music and lyrics from Stephen Schwartz are part of the story rather than standalone showstoppers – although Elphaba’s No Good Deed certainly shook the rafters – and gave us themes rather than standards, so much so that you are swept along by the music which carries the story onwards rather than interrupts it with a song.

Dale Ripley gives us the Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a give the people what they want, vaudeville song and dance man

There are little musical tributes to the original 1939 Oz movie in the score, incidentally; for example the first seven notes of one of the themes, used when unlimited appears in songs such as The Wizard and I  and Defying Gravity are also the opening seven notes of Over the Rainbow.

And among other affectionate digs at the Judy Garland film there is also a little visual dig at Evita in the show if you look for it, but back to the music and what a difference a 14 piece orchestra makes, under musical director Dan Jackson. The bigger the orchestra the fuller and richer the sound and the more rounded the whole production, and the ladies and gentlemen down in the depths of the pit did a splendid job.

Wicked opened on Broadway at the George Gershwin Theatre in 2003 and is still running there; it opened in the West End at the Apollo Victoria in September 2006 and is still running there. This is the first UK tour and provides all round, fun, family entertainment, full of Broadway and West End musical magic all summer long to September 6. It would be wicked to miss it.

Roger Clarke

10-07-14 

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