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Whatever your feeling about musical theatre, Wicked is intoxicating—a spectacular show that avoids spectacle. 'It is a gigantic and technically complex production,' says Michael McCabe, executive producer of the UK/international tour. 'The visuals are breathtaking – the set design is inspired by the inner workings of a clock and all of the costumes are couture masterpieces. Combined with the stunning lighting and special effects, the entire fantasy world of Oz is conjured up for audiences.' The clock theme runs deep; the show’s pace ranges from fast to blistering, and the ensembles’ split-second reaction time is staggering. This all makes a three-hour(!) show seem half the length.
Wicked is a loose prequel to The Wizard of Oz, told in flashback by Glinda (Carly Anderson), good witch of the north, who explains her unlikely friendship with Elphaba (Jodie Steele), the wicked witch of the west, recently decesased. The backstories of the witches, as well as the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, will bring a smile to fans of the movie. However, spectacular waters run deep; Wicked has some timely messages about humanity and society. For example, Elphaba’s wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Emily Shaw, East) inherits the governorship of Muchkin land from her father and oppresses her diminutive subjects so her lover will not leave her. The phenomenally talented Elphaba faces terrible discrimination, even from her father (Dean Read), because of her green skin, and is labeled wicked when she stands up against Oz’s evil regime. This Wizard (Steven Pinder) is no harmless buffoon; he has been silencing the previously equal animal population with new technology – 'the cage' makes them lose their power to speak.
'Wicked is about friendship and about being true to yourself, and this has resonated with audiences of all ages,' says McCabe. 'The themes at the heart of the story are for everyone (male and female and all ages), and resonate with anyone who struggles with their identity or has ever felt like an outsider,' he continues. 'Elphaba is a remarkable character and a role model for all.'
The music is as loud as the pace is quick, which means you barely digest one song before racing on to the next. This is a shame, because while clever lines abound, there are few songs you’ll remember the next day, or even in the taxi home. 'I’m Not That Girl' is thoughtful and touching, and the showstopper 'What Is This Feeling' is not only catchy but beautifully constructed as a duet/ensemble piece (the answer, by the way, is 'loathing'), but the others serve narrative functions. Another drawback to loud, rock-type music is that only certain singers can be heard above the fray. Gone are the rich, chocolatey tones that were once a musical theatre standard; if Wicked is the trend, expect future voices to be high, powerful, and thin. The stunning tones of Anderson, Steele, and Shaw were cut from the same vocal cloth, and Time Out at least would have failed a voice lineup. But performances were strong: even though Anderson was channelling Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, her humanity was always present. Shaw looked appropriately pathetic, in the original sense of the word, and Steele has a great range and real gift for comedy. Handsome Fiyero (Bradley Jaden) made a better prince than he did a scarecrow, but his scenes with the two women, particularly love interest Elphaba, were touching and utterly believable. And this time, [SPOILER ALERT] the 'ugly' —and morally and intellectually superior—girl gets the guy.
But the most important theme is friendship – two women go from mutual dislike and prejudice to compassion and understanding; from unequivocal support to competing over the same man; to having opposing views over the same regime to finally understanding that each has changed the other one for the better ('For Good'). If you’re looking for a big, bold, beautiful show that simultaneously teaches the value of friendship and the dangers of fascism, Wicked is your ticket.
By Nancy Pellegrini