During its first West End run in 2006, Wicked grabbed a certain section of musical theatre fans by their ruby red slippers and hasn’t let go since. Back then, the best-selling show’s enthralled audience was mostly made up of teens and preteens, but it’s no coincidence that those same fans join their younger counterparts eight years on.
Often sold as a sort of origin story for the Wizard of Oz’s most despicable of westward witches – here named Elphaba – Wicked goes much further than a justification of her rotten behaviour. After addressing a terrible childhood and some awkward years at university (the audience is spared from any rousing choruses of It’s Not Easy Being Green) the musical goes on to cover the politics of Oz, and the background of the original story.
Does it undermine the original story’s vision? Yes, unequivocally. It takes what we know about the characters from The Wizard of Oz and gives them hidden agendas and motivations, thus putting characters under a scrutiny that they were never written for. But there are few stories whose characters are as ripe for reimagining as Elphaba and friends.
For the most part, It works well, and there’s something satisfying about catching glimpses of the source material even in the hackneyed Mean Girls meets Harry Potter first half. References come in broad strokes; witnessing, for example, the figurative birth of both Tinman and Scarecrow, but they also come in more subtle ones: The captain of Oz’s guard wears a jacket emblazoned with a segment of golden brick road. At times these references feel crowbarred, but they’re still one of Wicked’s greatest pleasures.
Despite it’s marketing, Stephen Schwartz’s script doesn’t make a person out of Elphaba, instead swapping one set of clichés for another. There is a character, however, that has an interesting journey, moving from blissful ignorance to premeditated self sacrifice, but even she has little real emotional depth until well into the production’s second act.
Performances are great, without a missed step or dropped line to speak of, and the effects are technically incredible, but the high degree of polish seems to have come at the price of a slight lack of passion. The songs, by way of example, are well-performed, catchy and occasionally creative but they won’t be enough to stir the hearts of an audience leaning toward the side of cynicism.
Behind the overdone, high school-inspired central biopic, there are a few hidden gems covering censorship, mutilation, prejudice and social justice but regrettably, these aren’t given enough of a focus to give this well-performed, highly polished piece of musical theatre the soul it’s so close to capturing.
Joe Manners Lewis
Photo: Matt Crockett
Wicked is on at Apollo Victoria Theatre until 7th November 2015, for further information or to book visit here.