Telling the tale of how opposite personalities Elphaba (who might become the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz) and Glinda (The Good Witch of the North in the same movie) met and chummed up at a college not unlike Hogwarts, run by a devious witch called Madam Morrible not unlike Dolores Umbrage, the strength of Wicked endures through the excellent storytelling in Winnie Holzman’s book based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel (two years, incidentally, before Harry Potter saw the light of Waterstones).
It isn’t terribly ‘wicked’, though: these are mostly nice people who misunderstand each other. The music may remind you that composer Stephen Schwartz had his heyday in the early seventies with Godspell and Pippin but since ‘Defying Gravity’ became an audition anthem for so many TV talent shows, it’s hard not to anticipate it at the climax of Act One.
Eleven years since opening at the Apollo Victoria, Wicked is a well-oiled machine but the newest cast show the same enthusiasm and energy as at that unusual first night in 2006 when so many friends of Dorothy turned up dressed as Judy Garland.
Martin Ball who plays Dr Dillamond – a wise goat cast out for his ‘difference’ – may be the only surviving member of the original cast, but Alice Fearn is remarkably good as Elphaba, emphasising subtlety in acting over belting, but rising to the vocal challenge perfectly in her big number. I didn’t warm to Bradley Jaden’s boybandish prince Fiyero, but Sophie Evans totally nails the blonde superficiality of Glinda, and blends marvellously with Evans in the final duet ‘Changed for Good’.
Having just heard Kristin Chenoweth sing that and ‘Pop-u-lar’ in a one-nighter at the London Palladium, I recognise she has a higher soprano range, but the relentless perkiness might have been grating, Evans reins it in more.
There’s remarkably little magic in the flying – the monkeys are on wires at the back of the stage but just bounce athletically around the proscenium, Glinda descends in a pretty solid steel structure instead of an actual bubble, and Elphaba’s defiance of gravity is almost visually abetted by a hydraulic arm.
Would you rate it as a family outing for Christmas? – definitely, if you don’t choke on pricing up to £175 a ticket, nothing’s ‘that’ good. The script’s clever enough to appeal to adults, there’s nothing too scary for tinies, it’s unrelentingly colourful – especially if you like green – and grandparents will ‘get’ all the references to the scarecrow, cowardly lion and tin man.
Confession: I was a Wicked ‘virgin’ till this performance and don’t think I missed out. I think it may have settled into something more balanced than the blasting vocals of Kerry Ellis or the nasal whine of Idina Menzel.