WICKED

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until 7th APRIL.

March 7, 2024

images © Matt Crockett.

Despite the organic, changing nature of theatre, with each new production and company offering a potential window to inject new life or interpretation, there’s a case to be made that some shows get a little too defined and seminal to be afforded such a luxury.

Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s wonderful Wicked (…of Oz?) is possibly, for some, one such staple. Without wishing to offend the extensive yellow brick road of musical theatre royalty that have come before, many of even the most splendiferous of Elphabas and Glindas have often been cut from roughly the same cloth as the Menzel/Chenoweth blueprint of 2004. Again, this is absolutely no slight to the Dearmans, Verkaiks and Ellis’s of this world, all incredible in their own right, and fans can (and do) rage about who may reign supreme, but let’s just say it isn’t unprecedented to go into a production of this canted retelling of the Witches of Oz and know roughly the kind of lead performances you’ll be witnessing.

It’s what makes this latest touring production quite the burst of the (giant, travelling) bubble from the off. From the moment she descends from the rafters during rousing, operatic opener ‘No One Mourns The Wicked’, it becomes clear that Irish-born Sarah O’Connor (the first Glinda to have descended from, most appropriately, the Emerald Isle) is going to be doing things a little differently.

Having seen Wicked numerous times over the years, it’s a moment of excitement, anticipation and, for some, perhaps a faint glimmer of apprehension. O’Connor eschews much of the over animated hyperactivity and manic ditziness of her predecessors, presenting a far more droll and deadpan take on the ‘good’ half of Wicked’s duality. For some, this will be sacrilege worthy of summoning a baying mob of witch hunters of their own, but in execution it’s a wonderfully nuanced and mature take on a character that so often ends up as the slightly flimsier and flightier of the central duo.

“For some, this will be sacrilege worthy of summoning a baying mob of witch hunters of their own…”

O’Connor certainly has the pipes – her rendition of Act II opener ‘Thank Goodness’ is amongst the best you will hear. But the real devil is in the detail, and this Glinda feels just that little bit more, dare I say, real. Some may balk at seeing such a dry, occasionally caustic take on the bubbly do-gooder, but O’Connor is fantastic, often hilarious, in the quieter, simpler moments. Keep a keen eye open for some fantastic micro storytelling she offers up in ensemble sequences such as an early classroom session, where she takes understated relish and delight in beats as mundane as opening her notebook, or furnishing a quill.

And whilst that may be an awful lot of focus on a single performance to front-load a review with, it has to be said that it has been some time since a trip to Wicked offered up such a (very welcome) surprise. Again, the purists may already be whetstoning their pitchforks.

Around O’Connor’s bespoke take on Glinda, though, everything else is pretty much what you can safely expect from a trip to Wicked. It is, first and foremost, a corker of a musical. Most modern offerings would sacrifice a limb for just one what is a rapid succession of bangers and iconic numbers as ‘The Wizard and I’, ‘Popular’ or ‘No Good Deed’. And it remains a complete spectacle, too; an opulent treat of a show that glows, shimmies and positively drips in production value.

“remains a complete spectacle… an opulent treat of a show that glows, shimmies and positively drips in production value.”

Eugene Lee, Susan Hilferty and Kenneth Posner’s sumptuous, multicolour journey through Oz may have been tweaked, refined and leant some extra pizzaz over the years, but from luminous ballrooms to steampunk-infused lairs and foreboding castle hideaways, it all remains as lush, vividly realised and green as ever. The big set pieces and crowd pleasers are all present and accounted for, from Elphaba (Laura Pick) taking flight to the rousing power of incomparable Act I curtain closer, ‘Defying Gravity’, through to the myriad puppets, prosthetics and wirework used to depict all manner of animal denizens and other Maguire magic. A 33-strong ensemble (again, good luck finding many other tours with such a roster) stamp, chant and whirl their way through the likes of ‘Dancing Through Life’ and ‘One Short Day’ with real gusto and pizzaz.

Once again, this UK touring production sheds precious little by dint of going on the road. It is West End-worthy standards of musical theatre production, executed to routinely jaw-dropping levels.

And on the subject of jaw-dropping, one must also ensure that the tour’s choice of Elphaba, Laura Pick, gets her flowers. Whilst Pick may not be a complete newcomer to the role (having recently finished up a run in London), and her portrayal of Elphaba is decidedly more familiar than O’Connor’s individual spin on Glinda, she’s no less disarming or brilliant. With towering, seemingly effortless riffs and runs on ‘Gravity’, ‘Wizard’ and the notoriously demanding ‘No Good Deed’ of Act II, and a wilful, feisty take on the green-hued outcast, Pick proves a fantastic, formidable and rousing ‘Elphie’.

Rounding out the plaudits, Carl Man is a fine choice and delivers some great vocals as love interest Fiyero, whilst Simeon Truby finds plenty of quirky, oddball energy to mine from both his kindly Doctor Dillamond and the show’s more ambiguous take on Oz’s famous ‘Wizard’. Donna Berlin serves up a deliciously sharp and contemptuous Madame Morrible, and a shoutout must go to Nick Len who does an impressive job expressing pain, torment and physicality through layers of fabric, prosthesis, mechanics and costume as original flying monkey, Chistery.

Many will not need to given be much by way of prodding or reason to take the first bubble or ballon they can come by to catch Wicked as it heads back out on its own yellow brick road. It has firmly ensconced itself as one of the most beloved and popular musical success stories of the 21st Century, and with good cause. The London production has just extended its booking in the West End through to mid-2025 (for what is now the 37th time).

It’s a funny, witty, moving celebration of the underdog, the outcast and the outsider. A modern parable of not judging by appearance, and the importance of fighting the good fight for all the right reasons. All underpinned by the wit, humour and linguistic hijinks of Holzman’s book and Gregory Maguire’s original, subversive and fanciful flight.

And with the welcome surprise of an admirably unique Glinda, paired with a suitably soaring Elphaba, this new tour conjures up what is, in many ways, the best of both worlds.

More than anything though, with a score that still hits with the force of a house-hurling hurricane, a cast that will blow your lore-accurate silver slippers right off, and a scope and quality of production that rivals anything the Emerald City could magic up (‘Wizomania’ wishes), this remains, above all, a Wicked-ly good evening of marvellous, magical musical theatre.

Click your heels together three times and say ‘There’s no place like Brum’… Wicked is back in town, and ready to cast its vaunted, verdigris spell on audiences all over again.

With a gloriously original Glinda and effortlessly electric ‘Elphie’, Schwartz and Holzman’s cultural phenomenon flies back out on tour with all the colour, spectacle, music and magic to cast another winning, Oz-tentatious spell on UK audiences…

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