Last weekend I made my inaugural visit to the Apollo Victoria to see Wicked. It’s a show that, if I’m honest was never top of my list of priorities, but I have friends who are fans and, in keeping with my resolution to try and see more different shows as well as my familiar favourites and space out my London trips more in the new year, I figured it was about time I give it a shot.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, (who incidentally has wrote the songs for 3 of my favourite films: Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas and Dreamwork’s The Prince of Egypt among a mightily impressive portfolio), the musical is based on the Gregory Maguire novel: Wicked: The Life and Times of The Wicked Witch of The West, which is in turn a revisionist look at L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz and, of course the 1939 film. It takes characters and events we’d be familiar with and gives them a new twist and perspective. The whole basis for the musical centres on Elphaba, who we would know from the original books and the film as The Wicked Witch of the West, but unlike its source however, Elphaba isn’t set up as the antagonist in the musical, so us as the audience are left to question the whole idea of the nature of good and evil, and what makes a person so. Wicked deals with some pretty deep and universal themes, and while you can indeed make a case to say that the impact of these are perhaps a little diluted in the cause of making something people will be entertained by (after all, isn’t that what musicals do?) I can say that I enjoyed how the musical challenged me to think differently and really focus on the subtleties. I felt overall I enjoyed the 2nd half more than the first, purely for the way in which the musical manages to marry together the new twists with all the references from the original stories and film.
Visually, this show is a delight. Susan Hilferty has made some incredibly beautiful costumes, my favourites being Glinda’s dresses, Boq’s transformation and the Ozian attire of One Short Day. Pair that up with Tom Watson (Wigs and Hair) and Joe Dulude II (Makeup) the overall effect was truly impressive and I thoroughly enjoyed letting my inner child’s sense of wonder out to play and was challenged to try and take everything in, I know if I returned in future I still wouldn’t have picked up on everything! Eugene Lee is in charge of Scenic Design, and along with Kenneth Posner (Lighting), Tony Meola (Sound) and Elaine J. McCarthy (Projections) the overall ambience is amazing: I loved Glinda’s bubble, the Time Dragon Clock, the lighting during No Good Deed and Elphaba’s triumphant moment at the end of Defying Gravity. Before I came to see the show, I was familiar with some of the songs, and it was wonderful to finally hear these in context, as well as hearing the rest of the score. Throughout I was really pleased with myself as I picked up on the little bits and pieces from all the different melodies that linked the whole score together; it just gave the whole piece a great sense of continuity and an endearing flow.
Jennifer DiNoia currently leads the cast as Elphaba, in her West End Debut. Now in her sixth company and the fourth country she has played the role, her performance struck me as incredibly confident and at ease; she clearly knows who the character is and where she wanted her interpretation to go. Her Elphaba is tenacious and fiery, and she had a great gift for subtle humour in her delivery of her indifference to Glinda in the early scenes, particularly in the build up to Popular and their duet: What is this feeling?
My favourite scene of hers was in Act 2, during her confrontation with the latter following the hurricane that bought Dorothy’s house to Oz, which I felt was the real crowning moment in Elphaba’s journey. Vocally, I can think of no better way to sum up my reaction to her than: ‘Man, the girl’s got some pipes!’ I was in awe of her, as I am every actress who has taken on the role now having seen the show for myself; I like to pretend I can sing some of Elphaba’s songs, when in reality Jennifer has vocal range and stamina I can only dream of!
Glinda was the character I struggled with most; in a complete reversal to what I’m familiar with, in the early stages of the show she is vain, cruel and superficial. As such, the humour in her character plays on this, and the character is just way too over the top for my taste. That’s not to say I think Savannah Stephenson is a terrible actress, on the contrary as the show went on thanks to her I did warm to the character much more. I mentioned my misgivings to my friend at interval, and she having seen the show multiple times, told me that all Glinda’s she has seen go for that over the top approach, so it must be the directors prerogative. I get why she has to be so, Glinda is the opposite of Elphaba and the whole moral of the show hinges on their friendship and the impact they have on each other’s lives, I guess I just didn’t take to the character. Having said that, For Good, their final duet was a joy and I felt Savannah’s & Jennifer’s voices worked together beautifully.
Fiyero is the one character that I wish the musical allowed more scope. He has moments of great warmth, but his character felt flat to me, in particular his relationship with Elphaba just felt to me like it was thrown in as a: ‘oh, we haven’t had a love song between the two leads yet’ afterthought, which doesn’t do justice to what I feel was probably my favourite song in the musical As Long As You’re Mine. The musical sets up Fiyero & Glinda as a couple, before he realises it’s actually Elphaba he wants to be with. All fine and dandy, because huzzah the popular pretty boy goes for the misfit, I just wish their relationship had more substance and development. Again, like Savannah, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of Jeremy Taylor, who plays him; I think he does a fine job with what he has to work with; I just confess when I’m in the audience, if I fall in love with the guy just like the girl does, then we’re onto a winner. With Fiyero though, I was indifferent. I was torn by the end: I could think of two particular guys who I would like to see in the role one day if for no other reasons than to hear them sing the aforementioned duet and to see if they can endear Fiyero to me, but then I remember he doesn’t have much stage time and the simple fact I didn’t take to the character, and I wonder if even with a performer I’m a fan of in the role, whether that would be enough. What can I say? I like my musical boys to have a bit more charm and swagger…
Staying with the gents for a sec, special mention to Sam Lupton as Boq, who I felt gave a wonderfully loveable and ultimately tragic performance. Another special mention must go to Nessarose, played by Katie Rowley Jones. Nessa, Elphaba’s sister, was born with her legs ‘all tangled’ after her mother was forced by her father to eat a special kind of plant to ensure she would not be born green, as her sister was. This means Nessa has to use a wheelchair, and is often referred to as ‘tragically beautiful’. Being in a wheelchair myself and wanting to be more independent; not have people take pity on you and finding that special guy who sees you, beyond the seat you’re in is something I aim for in life, so in that respect I empathised with Nessa, just as I did with Elphaba and her determination to be accepted and make her mark on the world. Before you say anything, yes I am aware these are only fictional characters; and in Nessa’s case her impairment is altered from Maguire’s novel, but I’m incredibly pleased and grateful to have found a musical that has given me two female characters I finally feel I connect to tangibly.
I’m pleased my friend finally convinced me to see the show; it has some great songs and is a visual feast, and one I would say that every musical fan should see once. Overall though, I wouldn’t put it up there with my personal favourites. As to whether I’d return, well, let’s see where the Fiyero casting goes in future…… 😉.