Having been playing in the West End since it’s opening in 2006, Wicked, based upon Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, has had world-wide success, and it’s easy to see why. Twisting the story of Dorothy and the Yellow Brick Road, this much loved American story is seen from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West, and the turmoil she goes through as a teenager and the eventual – apparent – demise into the wicked ways she is known for. Maguire’s novel is transposed onto the stage with musical flare with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman.
In long-running musicals or plays in the West End there’s often a slight element of fatigue, as if the shows have been playing with little notice from their owners with a thin layer of dust settling across the stage. The same can’t be said for Wicked which feels as fresh as when it first came to the West End from its 2003 Broadway opening. This timelessness persists through Schwartz and Holzman adaption of Maguire’s novel, which has a charm to entertain musically and theatrically, but also to subvert a story we are familiar with, finding new humour and emotion within.
Elphaba, played by Louise Dearman, is the main focus within Wicked, as we follow her journey through adolescence and into the transformation of the Wicked Witch of the West. The bulk of the narrative revolves around the tight-knit friendship (and at times hatred) between Elphaba and Glinda, played by Gina Beck. These two central characters are like two-peas-in-a-pod, slightly mismatched but traveling through the bumpy road that drives them to the Emerald City in the heart of the Land of Oz. Dearman as Elphaba is, as should be expected with a leading lady, quite simply superb. Her small frame and delicate demeanour might fool you at first into wondering how she will be able to fill the large auditorium of the Apollo Theatre, but as she smashes through numbers such as I’m Not That Girl and No Good Deed, this misconception is quickly forgotten. Dearman carries a richness within her vocals, and a playful sense of character when delivering the book. She grows, swells even, within the course of the production, and whilst we’re used to booing the wickedness of the witch, you can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for her.
Beck as the bubbly and blonde Glinda is a nice counter-part to Dearman but she doesn’t quite have the quality to make the character of Glinda shine. Songs which previous Glinda’s have made shine seem slightly corse and lacking in pop, especially the catchy Popular which lacks comedy. Beck is perfectly comfortable within the role, but when placed next to Dearman you can see who can really stretch their vocals and character playing space. The same can be said for Ben Freeman as Fiyero, the romantic lover. He’s perfectly comfortable but lacks any standout quality that other Fiyero’s have offered.
Nonetheless, seven years in the West End and Wicked still offers an enjoyable evening. The highlight has to come with the finale of Act One with the now cult-status Defying Gravity. Dearman sours during the vocals, and with the ensemble and Beck supporting this climatic end to the first act the theatre is positively electric. The merits lie with Schwartz’s fantastic music and lyrics to give such a tremendous ending to the first act. Saying this, with much of the story and fast-action placed within the first act, it does leave the second half a slower affair. There’s much less in the way of plot development, and the songs lack their bite, but it all makes for an enjoyable evening.
It’s easy to question why a production like Wicked has had continued success. Whilst the story is known to us, it is subverted, and whilst other green characters have entered the West End and failed (Shrek and The Grinch) there’s a longevity to be found in Wicked. It’s the culmination of an imaginative book, a spellbinding end to the first act, and a slight tongue-in-cheek look towards the classic Wizard of Oz. In all, Wicked is pure entertainment, and when the choice in the West End is so vast, it’s a sure-fire success of an evening, and will no doubt continue to be so.
Wicked is currently playing at the Apollo Theatre, and is booking until November 2014. For tickets, book via the Shows in London website. Photo by Matthew Crockett.