Theatre | Wicked – the 'Popular' musical flies into Leeds

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Image: Wicked the Musical UK Tour

5/5 Stars

Why is the Wicked Witch of the West so very wicked? What’s with all those flying monkeys? And why on earth is she green? Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s award-winning global phenomenon Wicked, loosely based on Gregory Maguire’s novel of the same name, seeks to answer these questions and more by offering an ingenious and exuberant new musical perspective on The Wizard of Oz.

Now on its first UK tour, Wicked takes us back in time before Dorothy’s arrival in Oz to  learn how one misunderstood girl with unfortunate green skin named Elphaba (after Oz author L. Frank Baum) and her shallow, socialite university roommate became The Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good respectively. The relationship between these two girls is the heart of the story as they veer from instinctive hatred to warm friendship and back again. Almost all the best songs in the show belong to the pair of them. ‘What is this Feeling?’, a send-up of all love-at-first sight numbers in the history of musicals that may not be as satirical as it first seems, ‘Popular’, ‘One Short Day’, ‘For Good’ and the electrifying spectacle of ‘Defying Gravity’ in which Elphaba must leave her companion behind to embrace both her full magical potential and her political radicalism, are all brilliantly memorable tunes.

Also powerful are the moodily sexy opening chords of love duet ‘As Long as You’re Mine’ and eleven ‘o’ clock number ‘No Good Deed’, in which our spiky anti-heroine finally spurns the forces of good and morphs into the cackling, maniacal, ruby-slipper obsessed sorceress we all recognise. It’s a powerful character arc, encompassing a great deal of winkingly clever, moving and even upsetting moments. But while most musicals offer sentiment by the bucket load, Wicked also boasts a sophisticated political subtext and treatise on the tangled topic of morality. It’s an over-used pun, but Wicked truly is a show with brains, heart and courage however you look at it.

The key strength of this touring production is the way it succeeds in preserving the quality of the long-running London show in almost every respect.  The production is like one long Lady Gaga music video filmed in the Emerald City and the two leads are undoubtedly West End calibre. Nikki Davis-Jones as Elphaba in particular smuggles a suitably sour tone into her soaring vocal performance, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see her or Emily Tierney as Glinda taking up the mantle of those roles in the London production at some point in the near future. Elsewhere, Carina Gillespie reminds us how woefully underused is the character of Elphaba’s crippled younger sister Nessarose. Only the part of romantic interest Fiyero feels miscast. Liam Jones might have a pleasant pop voice, but he looks and sounds altogether too boyish for a role that requires exaggerated masculine swagger, not to mention his slight resemblance to Robin Thicke.  His performance had me longing for the dulcet tones and pornographic chin of Oliver Tompsett, who defined the role early in the West End run, while the touring female cast all made their roles their own.

The bottom line here, however, is that there will be few such well-rounded and exhilerating shows flying into Leeds anytime soon, so grab one of the last tickets while you still can.

Wicked will be showing at Leeds Grand Theatre until 5 July.

Rachel Groocock

 

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