An autumn rich in musicals in the West End may yet bring better ones, but it’ll be difficult to find a more eye-poppingly lavish show anywhere than Wicked. And a musical about the castings of spells seems to have duly cast its own and hypnotises audience who have embraced it as not so much a musical as an event.
With its towering environmental design by Eugene Lee that has a gigantic dragon dominating the proscenium and clattering its jaws menacingly at regular intervals, the show matches the scale of that vast warehouse of the Apollo Victoria, newly done out in green to match the prevailing colour tone of the show. But the show could leave you feeling a little green around the gills yourself as you succumb to the vertigo of its dizzying leaps of its convoluted plotting, shifting moods and defiant, sometimes deafening, melodies.
Is there a human scale to such a superhuman-sized show? That’s fortunately provided by the vibrant pairing of Idina Menzel, recreating her Tony award winning Broadway turn as Elphaba, brassily paired with the attractive Australian musical newcomer Helen Dallimore as Glinda, the two leads of this musical deconstruction of the “untold story of the Witches of Oz”. Their bravura, belting displays of vocal talent as they rip through Stephen Schwartz’s score of thumping power ballads sometimes turn this into the Pop Idol of musicals.
Just as Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods 1987 musical famously offered a deconstruction of popular fairytales sent into collision with each other, so Wicked unpacks the Wizard of Oz back-story, long before Dorothy (mentioned but never seen) found she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, the musical offers a ferocious battle of wills (and top notes) between these two sparky young women, Glinda and Elphaba, who meet at a sorcery school (spot the Harry Potter-ish connection), presided over by Miriam Margolyes’s battleaxe headmistress Madame Morrible. After initial hostilities and rivalries in love, the two form an alliance as they discover that “something odd/is happening in Oz”, and set themselves on a course of collision with the authorities, and into animal liberationists.
Meanwhile the Wizard of Oz, whom they go to for help, turns out to be a weak, ineffectual deity in the shape of Nigel Planer who finds it politically expedient to demonise Elphaba and says, “Where I come from, everyone knows: the best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy.”
That gives the show a surprisingly topical resonance, as the show strives to work on several different levels simultaneously. But if it is also rather strenuously overcrowded in the narrative department, Joe Mantello’s meticulous re-creation of his Broadway production is a superbly staged exercise in crowd control and stage-craft that with its Cirque du Soleil-like production values turns it into a glittering cartoon bubble of a show.
The result taps into a genuine public appetite for spectacle, art and heart, and this demanding, sometimes commanding musical provides it in spades.