Touring – reviewed at Edinburgh Playhouse
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
It’s been to Edinburgh a few times, but this latest touring version of Wicked drops in on the Playhouse with the power of a flying farmhouse.
The Wicked Witch of the West deserved to die at the hands of a Kansas farm girl because she’d been terrifying the good people of Oz? Fake news! At least that’s what we’re told in this prequel-cum-side story to L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
We’re all familiar with Glinda the Good Witch of the East from the 1939/timeless film adaptation, but who knew the Wicked Witch’s real name was Elphaba? Or that she went to ‘uni’ with Glinda, had a sweet disabled sister and wasn’t so much a Munchkin murderess as an animal rights activist?
So far as Oz is concerned, we’re not in Kansas anymore. And we’re certainly not in Baum’s books, where the Witch is seriously evil. But taken as a speculative spin-off, Gregory Maguire’s revisionist novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and this musical adaptation, have charms of their own.
For one thing, we have two strong leading characters in Glinda and Elphaba. The former is the Prom Queen of every US high school movie ever, initially snooty but with a heart – ironically, as it turns out – that Elphaba melts.
‘Elphie’, having green skin due to her mother’s dalliance with a charming stranger, is used to being an outsider, she bends into it, but when Glinda takes an interest, she blooms. We see the women grow as they journey from Shiz University to the Emerald City, now friends but still different enough that their paths must diverge.
Helen Woolf is seriously good as Glinda, embracing the comic moments and pathos with equal glee, while Amy Ross is a delightfully feisty Elphaba, progressing from gauche kid (“I don’t cause commotion, I AM one”) to freedom fighter, with the occasional spookily accurate Margaret Hamilton callback.
But what really makes this production so good is the chemistry between the two. It’s not just a matter of their voices blending beautifully in their shared numbers, it’s the believability of their friendship.
So far as Stephen Schwartz’s songs go, Ross and Woolf deliver them with sincerity and panache, with the lighter numbers What is this Feeling and Popular especially good. As for Defying Gravity, the showstopper which stops not the show, but simply Act One, it’s a powerful piece, belonging mainly to Elphaba but needing Glinda’s input to gain extra resonance. The actresses – with the backing of Dave Rose’s terrific orchestra – do it proud.
The most powerful number of the show is gifted to Elphaba – No Good Deed sees the student turned mistress of magic truly embrace the role she’s been cast into by the Oz authorities, without betraying the character we’ve grown to like. Ross is stunning, her stagecraft and voice control placing her at the eye of a storm undreamt of by Dorothy Gale – a theatrical cyclone.
There’s another moment of pure theatre at the climax of Joe Mantello’s production, an old-fashioned shadowplay perfectly placed to coincide with major events in the M-G-M movie. It works brilliantly.
Steven Pinder makes a fine Wizard, conveying the charm of a snake oil salesman in two showcase songs, A Sentimental Man and Wonderful. He also does double duty, playing teacher Dr Dillamond, a goat whose persecution opens Elphaba’s eyes to the darker side of Oz. Pinder played the same parts in an earlier tour to Edinburgh; he was good then, he’s great now, his voice richer and his dancing more assured.
Jack Harrison-Cooper as Chistery. Pic: Matt Crockett
Pinder, who spent years as Brookside’s Max Farnham, isn’t the only soap survivor in this show – Aaron Sidwell was Steven Beale in EastEnders (well, one of them…) and it looks like leaving was a good decision as his performance as the initially shallow Prince Fiyero promises a good future in musical theatre. His athletic presence and sweet voice will open a lot of doors… heck, given the trousers worn in his opening song, Dancing Through Life, he’s doing well not to be singing falsetto.
Iddon Jones is adorable as Boq, the Munchkin who’s besotted with Glinda but persuaded to ask Elphaba’s wheelchair user sister Nessarose to the dance. As embodied by Emily Shaw, said sibling has a little more gravitas than usual. As for Madame Morrible, she’s truly ‘orrible as channelled through Kim Ismay – fantastic voice, though.
The ensemble of Munchkins and oppressed animals are tight as tight can be, filling the stage with colour and talent. Those flying monkeys, though… terrifying is understating it! And then there’s the David Cronenberg-like body horror, and the allusions to Nazi Germany’s oppression of the Jews – for a soppy old musical, Wicked has some seriously hard edges.
Kudos, too, to the lighting and sound design, the costumes, the choreography, there’s not a weak link in this show – but in the end Wicked stands or falls on the quality of its leading ladies, and in Ross and Woolf this production has a truly magical partnership.
Running Times – 2 hours 40 mins (including interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA. Phone booking: 0844 871 3014
Tuesday 8 May – Saturday 9 June 2018.
Mon-Sat: 7.30pm; matinees Weds, Sat (& Thurs 10, Thurs 31): 2.30pm .
Tickets and details: www.atgtickets.com/shows/wicked/edinburgh-playhouse/
Show website: www.wickedthemusical.co.uk
Twitter: @WickedUK #WickedOnTour.
Wicked on tour 2018:
8 May – 9 June
0844 871 3014
13 June – 7 July
0844 848 2700
17 July – 1 September
Bord Gais Energy Theatre
0818 719 377
6 – 29 September
0844 871 3022
3 – 27 October
31 Oct – 24 Nov
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464
4 Dec 2018 – 5 Jan 2019
0844 871 3019
Wicked – Defying Gravity. Pic: Matt Crockett