‘Are people born Wicked? Or do they have Wickedness thrust upon them?’ The Wizard of Oz would have us believe the Wicked Witch of the West was born wicked, but Wicked breaks through the walls of L. Frank Baum’s book and the Technicolor musical classic to tell us what really went on in Oz. Based on the book by Gregory Maguire, adapted by Winnie Holzman, it makes use of the politics and ups the playfulness to create its own classic: the ultimate musical about friendship, fighting the good fight, and defying the odds - and gravity.
Wicked is a richly woven tapestry of top-class entertainment, powerful performances, and unforgettable spectacle. Wicked is not so much a prelude but an impassioned and political parallel tale that weaves itself effortlessly and perceptively through the loose threads of The Wizard of Oz: from the silver slippers to the Scarecrow, the musical leaves no stone, or song, unturned. Stephen Schwartz's score is sumptuous, thematic, and atmospheric, whizzing us off to Oz from the overture, and full of both animated ensemble numbers and beautiful ballads played spectacularly by the orchestra under Dave Rose's spirited baton. The musical is at its most magical when the story, staging, and score grow together, and the most memorable of those moments is undoubtedly 'Defying Gravity': wearing the iconic black hat, with her witch's broom in hand, it's Elphaba's loss of belief in the Wizard that forces her to fly high and fight for what she believes in, all building to that unbelievable belt that closes Act I with a bang.
For a show that's Oz - the Wizard, the witches, the wonder - without all the 'smoke and mirrors', there's something metatheatrical about the theatrical effects that make Wicked so magical. From literal smoke and mirrors, flying monkeys, and Tin Man transformations to more traditional forms of theatrical magic like Kenneth Posner's glorious lighting, Susan Hilferty's gorgeous costumes in every colour of green imaginable, and even the clever dual-rolling of the Goatish teacher Doctor Dillamond and the Wonderful Wizard, with the oppressed and the oppressor played by the same actor, the world of Wicked is one of high fantasy, but it's also heartfelt and hugely affecting.
The characters are at the heart of the musical's affectedness, and there are a handful of powerhouse performances. Green-skinned and gorgeously-sung, especially in 'Defying Gravity' and 'No Good Deed', Amy Ross's Elphaba is generous and gentle, and her politics, appearance and (lack of) popularity are at first discordant with Helen Woolf's girlish, and hilariously egotistical Glinda. As girls, the two grow believably together, becoming harmonious in more than just voice, until powers beyond them - a discriminatory government - drive them apart. Their friendship is often fraught and not without its fights, but in Woolf and Ross's hands it's authentic and full of heart. Aaron Sidwell's Fiyero begins a loveable, brainless bad-boy but blossoms into a leading man who abandons just 'Dancing Through Life' once he learns a lesson or two about empathy from Elphaba, and Sidwell and Ross's lovers' duet, 'As Long As Your Mine', is tender but determined. Steven Pinder's Wizard is the pathetic pretender we were promised at the end of the 1939 film but with moments of style in his song 'Wonderful', Emily Shaw's anguished Nessarose is achingly nuanced, and the ensemble are absolutely sublime in voice, acting and choreography.
Wicked is an intertextual spectacle in story, staging, and score, and whilst allusions aren't always the most eloquent - 'life's more painless, for the brainless' sings Fiyero in 'Dancing Through Life' - some are oh-so-subtle, so look for the detail in the floppy and off-balance choreography, as well as listening for it. And, as for where the Wicked Witch of the West got her wickedness, only Wicked will let you find out 'For Good'.