Sequels have been the stock-in-trade of film companies for some time. But here's a novel idea that is almost a prequel, though not quite. The plot of this superbly polished musical extravaganza is (part of) the backstory to the much-loved 'Wizard of Oz' - originally a book written by American writer Frank L Baum and published in 1900, and subsequently converted into numerous film versions, the most notable of which appeared in 1939 and starred Judy Garland, not forgetting her dog, Toto.
'Wicked' takes us back to the death of the Wicked Witch of the West - otherwise known here as Elphaba - and describes how she became the nasty piece of work portrayed in film, and provides a history of her relationship with the good witch, Glinda.
The original idea for this off-beat, but imaginative concept, came from the mind and pen of author Gregory Maguire, who apparently wrote the novel while residing in London in 1990 - so it's fitting that 'Wicked' has finally made it to the West End after starting it's theatrical life with 3 years infancy on Broadway (the 1,000th performance was given in March this year). With Universal Studios ranking among the plethora of producers credited with the conception of this piece, it was pretty easy to predict that this would be a slick production in every respect. And slick it certainly is, with little expense spared in any of the acting or production departments. The scenery, costumes and lighting are, quite simply, stunning. In particular, the impressively detailed and conceptually innovative costumes designed by Susan Hilferty, are breathtaking.
For much of the first half hour or so, I felt decidedly behind the game as it were, because almost the entire audience welcomed new characters with rapturous applause, and seemed to know not only who each character was, but what they were about to do. I put that down to the show's marketing, rather than my own ignorance, of course.
Best in the acting department was the ever-exceptional Miriam Margolyes, whose voice seems to grow stronger and more mellow with each role she assumes. And her more than ample bosom was neatly reflected in an equally ample bustle, at least for the first half of the show. But there are strong performances all-round in this fantasy venture - much to praise and very little to fault. The two lead roles of Glinda (Helen Dallimore) and Elphaba (Idina Menzel) provide distinctive characterisations whilst complementing each other's performance. It's not only good teamwork, but also betrays the invisible hand of thoughtful direction.
Surprisingly, dance is a bit on the thin side for a musical of this scope. Although Adam Garcia dances his way through his first appearance pretty deftly, there's a feeling that someone's made a calculated decision to give dance a back seat. But it didn't seem to matter, given that there's all kinds of other things going on anyway.
The second half felt a little weaker than the first, with not quite so much vitality. And the kind of mesmerising climax that one had felt was on its way, didn't materialise. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic audience gave the company a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.
The Tin Man and scarecrow put in appearances, and there's a brief glimpse of the lion as a cub, and later on his enormous tail waves to us from the wings. Dorothy on the other hand, languishes unseen in a dungeon below stage. But her famous ruby slippers turn out to be silver - unless my fading eye-sight is deluding me. Why the slippers had to change colour is anyone's guess. Odd though.
Don't look for anything too deep in terms of morality or psychological motivation, because 'Wicked' is pure fantasy entertainment, and doesn't offer much in the way of thought provoking revelations about the human psyche or condition. Yes, there is a dollop of schmaltz here and there, but Winnie Holzman's book has wit, warmth and a streak of cynical humour that almost pokes fun at itself. For a musical, that's certainly no bad thing. And I was particularly pleased to see that director Joe Mantello has eschewed the near-obligatory half-hour ritual of continual curtain-calls, that can be irritating to the point of nausea. Quite obviously, he's confident enough in his own work and that of his cast and musicians, to opt for traditional curtain calls that ask the audience to appreciate the show as a whole, rather than a few minutes dancing in the aisles to numerous reprises. That in itself deserves a round of applause, and defines the professionalism of this production.
Love them or loathe them, musicals still rule the roost in the West End. And there's a gaggle of competitors lining up in the wings to challenge 'Wicked' for audiences in the next few weeks. But I doubt that it has much to fear, because this is a rippingly wicked show, that even the hardest of hearts will find difficult to resist. Its stunning production values alone will have the 'Friends of Dorothy' and many, many more flooding through the emerald doors for years to come. And rightly so, because it is a great night out.
"Remarkable kaleidoscope of magical shocks, surprises and sensations. Wicked works like a dream."
Nicholas De Jongh for The Evening Standard
"I enjoyed very little...The songs sound like dozens you've heard before. The acting is, by and large, appalling."
Paul Taylor for Independent
"Efficient, knowing and highly professional but more like a piece of industrial product than something that genuinely touches the heart or mind."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Witty, enjoyable...No one could accuse Wicked of being a great musical – indeed at times it's a bit of a mess - but it proves far more enjoyable than I had dared to hope"
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Songs bang out, along with iffy lyrics and not-so-witty dialogue...I’d rather see The Wizard of Oz 20 times than this ersatz show once."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
Two readers kindly emailed me with further information about the silver/ ruby slippers in 'Wicked'. I am grateful to both of them for taking the time and trouble to get in touch. Since both emails contained other subject matter, I've included below only reference to the slippers:
Andrea Carpenter wrote on Friday 29th September 2006:
“...And just to help you with your Wicked trivia. Yes, the shoes were silver, your eyes were not deceiving you. They become Ruby as they are soaked with the blood of the dead witch – not properly explained in this but apparently that’s what happened in the book (I did read the book but it’s way darker than the stage version so quite glum).”
Robert Laughton wrote on Saturday 30th September 2006:
“ ... To answer a question of yours though ... the reason for the silver shoes as opposed to Ruby Slippers. In both books (The Wizard of OZ and Wicked) the shoes Dorothy inherits from the witch of the East are in fact silver. Ruby Slippers were invented for the MGM feature film in order to highlight the movie's use of colour (the first film to do so.) While the musical version of Wicked does pull most of it's OZ legend from the movie (unlike the novel which draws almost exclusively from the original book) the producers of this show were not able to use the Ruby Slippers for one simple reason: they are copyrighted by MGM and a ridiculous sum of money would be needed to acquire those rights.
If you look closely, however, when Elphaba casts a spell on Nessarose's feet in Act II, Nessa exclaims that her feet feel like they're on fire and the lighting ever so subtly changes to red, making her shoes look red, but without breaking any nasty copyright laws.”
Many thanks, Andrea and Robert.