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Every few years a show comes along which is so spectacular, so extravagant, so over-the-top that it changes musical theatre forever. Phantom of the Opera did it back in 1986, Rocky Horror Picture Show did it in the ’70s and Wicked has done it for the millennium.
I arrived at the Apollo Victoria Theatre last night to find an art deco dream – the lobby was all angles and ’20s-style architecture, all tinged the iconic emerald green. As we entered the theatre I saw a stage surrounded by industrial cogs and topped by a huge dragon. All very mysterious, and all very distinct from the iconic The Wizard of Oz starring our beloved Judy Garland.
At 7:30 the lights went down, the orchestra started up and we were all thrust into the world of the Emerald City, where the inhabitants dress like members of Panem’s Capitol. The chorus welcomes us to Oz, where they are celebrating the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. Glinda, the good witch, descends in a giant bubble and is forced to reveal her history with the Wicked Witch.
From here, the show becomes an extended flashback to their time at Shiz University (they should really rethink that name). The Wicked Witch’s real name is revealed as Elphaba and she has the unfortunate affliction of green skin. It might have worked for Kermit the Frog but it makes Elphaba a loner amongst the other students.
Glinda is her natural foil – blonde, tanned, high-pitched. If she were a real human she’d be from Exeter and join the cheerleading team at uni. Naturally they are assigned as each other’s roommates and an ‘odd couple’ friendship eventually develops between them.
The music and lyrics are written by acclaimed composer Stephen Schwartz, who is mostly known for his work on classic Disney films like Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted. The music in Wicked is a world away from that: ‘Popular’ is a display of vocal gymnastics reminiscent of musicals like Thoroughly Modern Millie; whilst the slower numbers, such as ‘The Wizard and I’, tie in more closely with a show like Hairspray; and the Wizard’s solo song ‘Wonderful’ is straight out of Chicago. If you’re a fan of various musical styles then there’s sure to be something you’ll like in this.
Glinda and Elphaba are summoned to the Emerald City to meet the famous Wizard. As in the film he turns out to be more meek than magical, trying to persuade Elphaba to become his sidekick. She realises that he is responsible for the terrible events in Oz and flees, taking his spellbook (the Grimmerie) with her. She is labelled an enemy of the state and decides to leave the Emerald City whilst Glinda remains behind.
The first half closes with undoubtedly the biggest number of the show and ‘Defying Gravity’ was everything you could ever want it to be. Heartfelt, sorrowful but soaring, it was the perfect way to end Act I and Emma Hatton was incredible in her role as Elphaba, riding above the audience on her enchanted broomstick.
The second half follows Elphaba on her attempts to seek refuge from the Wizard’s guards. Her journey is contrasted with Glinda, who has become something of a glittery mouthpiece for Oz propaganda.
Wicked features a number of subplots and themes that are much deeper than the shiny setting would have you believe. The oppression of animals is a major current that has parallels to the treatment of LGBT and ethnic minority communities. Meanwhile, the two main characters are forced to choose between their friendship and what they believe to be right. A fluffy, weightless show this is not.
There are some downsides to Wicked. Fiyero, the love interest of both women, is about as deep as a puddle and about as interesting as cardboard. He swans in as the new rich prince at uni and his character development is too slow for us to really care about.
Similarly, the show is packed so full of action and plot that it’s hard for the audience to really take it in. We’re left with a second act that feels much more rushed than the first.
Nevertheless, the clues to The Wizard of Oz are cleverly included (including something which my friend dubbed ‘Chekhov’s Lion Cub’, a term we should all adopt) and it adds another dimension to our love of Frank L. Baum’s world of Oz. The scenery and costumes are out of this world and the performers are some of the best in the business. It’s also one of the biggest shows that features a number of females in the main roles – something that is sorely missing from the arts.
This is the musical for musical fans – forget those ‘grown up’ out-there shows from the 80s and 90s, and just lose yourself in the emerald, glittery, powerful, and most importantly fun world of Oz.