Review: Wicked (Touring)

Thursday 14th June 2018 at the Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.


Wicked is a titan of the musical theatre world and having already played to 55 million people worldwide to date, it continues to thrill audiences with this latest touring production, currently playing at the Grand Theatre and Opera House in Leeds. With book by Winnie Holzman, Wicked the Musical is based on Gregory Maguire’s novel which has revolutionised Oz in hearts and minds. It’s billed as ‘the untold story of the witches of Oz’ and takes audiences back in time, reimagining the story of The Wizard of Oz from a new perspective. The key events of the original story are intertwined with new fascinating insights and backstories.The Wicked Witch of the West is not all she appears to be; she is in fact Elphaba, a lovable misfit mercilessly ostracised her whole young life until the final straw made her turn her back on Oz altogether. We see the Good Witch, Glinda, meet Elphaba at Shiz University and their unlikely friendship is just one key element that keeps audiences coming back. From here there is much drama and confusion in the shape of the suave love interest Fiyero and the wicked wrongdoings of some high-up Ozian officials. Beside the stories of friendship, love and righteousness, there are darker forces at work which are often sidelined in the synopsis for this show. Oz seems to be heading for a dystopia for its speaking animals who are slowly being stripped of their rights while idols are toppling from pedestals as their true motives are exposed…only the good can triumph, leaving us to decide who deserves that label by the and of it all.The music and lyrics of this show are of course bright jewels in the Wicked crown and Stephen Schwartz‘s work guides us through the narrative with an expert ratio of sentimentality and fun. Numbers like ‘Defying Gravity’ and ‘Popular’ are possibly the most well-known songs, but equally impressive are ‘No One Mourns the Wicked’ – a soaring ensemble piece to make the rafters sway  – and ‘No Good Deed’ – a dark number seeing Elphaba’s rejection of Oz and its corruption. Fiyero makes his mark with the boppy ‘Dancing Through Life’ while ‘One Short Day’ and ‘For Good’ offer light, bright tones to the piece. The music perfectly frames the key messages so well woven into the fabric of this story; a tale of friendship, rebellion, tolerance, redemption and goodness, asking not just if people are born wicked, but whether we all have wickedness within us – something which shows itself in our reactions to someone who happens to be different. Such core values make Wicked a favourite with the young and impressionable, helping to form ideas about goodness and diversity through wonderfully well carved characters.Nikki Bentley is a wonderful Elphaba; she delivers a darker vision of the character than I’ve seen previously and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing a grittier transition from the young, restless and hopeless Elphaba to the exiled and riled Wicked Witch of the West. With a stunningly powerful voice, she tames the biggest numbers of this show with flair but gives beautiful performances of gentler songs too. I have seen Helen Woolf previously as Glinda at the Apollo Victoria and I have to say that she’s developed in this role considerably. She was funny before, of course, but she’s now well and truly mastered the Glinda comedy and goes for big laughs more often. Her Glinda remains one of the grittiest I’ve seen, but like Bentley, Woolf gives her character a lovely arc, allowing the audience to follow the nuanced transformation of the witches as they transition from girls to women. Aaron Sidwell is a very laid back Fiyero and mops up the fawning of the women very happily. His arc isn’t quite so well defined but Sidwell makes an excellent brooding love interest and counterpart to the central characters.Madame Morrible is the Head at Shiz and is the first to make Elphaba feel worthy, but there’s more to her than is discernible at first sight. Kim Ismay gives a quintessential headmistress characterisation to Morrible which abandons the larger than life, proclamatory style I’ve seen from others, in favour of a more sinister, stern approach. Steven Pinder proves himself very dexterous as both the wise and kind but ill-fated goat Doctor Dillamond as well as the chatty Wonderful Wizard of Oz…who also has more to him than one might imagine. Nessarose is Elphaba’s long- suffering, ‘tragically beautiful’ sister who struggles with her own sense of marginalisation and Emily Shaw gives a sterling performance as the troubled young woman. When paired with Iddon Jones’ trapped munchkin, Boq, we have a second pair of mis-matched underdogs trying to make their way in the world. Wicked’s ensemble is simply wonderful too; sharp on their feet and perfectly unified in their delivery of Wayne Cilento’s musical staging and James Lynn Abbott’s dance arrangements. Yet not only do they provide impressive, high-energy dance numbers, they also offer some gigantic sounds in some of Schwartz’s most dramatic songs.

It’s fascinating to see the towering grandeur of the West End set adapted for slightly smaller stage spaces, and it’s extremely impressive to note that compromises are few and none of the magic is really lost. The spectacle might be on a slightly refined scale, but the visuals remain grand and imposing or bright and captivating in turns. Eugene Lee’s settings are cleverly stripped back for this touring production and while a few details are shifted to support minor changes, the  production remains almost entirely intact – with a delightful little extra thrown in as a nice surprise! The visual artistry of Wicked as a production also has much to thank Susan Hilferty and Tom Watson (costume and hair/wigs respectively) for; the costumes for this show are stunning. Honing in on the central ideas of being different and Oz not quite running smoothly in the face of corrupt officials, the costumes are asymmetrical masterpieces with matching gravity-defying wigs. Memorable scenes for spectacle include the Emerald City sequence – a gorgeous vision in green, and the first act finale, for which Kenneth Posner’s lighting creates beautifully dramatic aesthetics for ‘Defying Gravity’ (the same can be said for the ‘No Good Deed’ sequence).Wicked is a great story which educates as much as it entertains; it’s both whimsical and deeply dramatic, with core messages which are so vital, so relatable, and so universal that I can’t see this show ever making an exit if I’m honest. It’s a show which has a phenomenal following and as it continues to ‘thrillify’ audiences around the world, it’s sure to earn itself a brand new following. This production is simply further proof that Wicked will remain a timeless great and you should most definitely take a trip to the Emerald City!

Wicked on Tour is directed by Joe Mantello and presented by Mare Platt, Universal Pictures, The Araca Group, Jon B. platt and David Stone. It plays at the Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds until July 7th 2018 and you can find tickets here.

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