Palace Theatre, Manchester
The Broadway musical Wicked is something of a phenomenon. Regularly selling out in the West End, the show has super fans from all over - some of whom must be green with envy that the UK tour has started in the North West.
Critics have been less kind to this fantasy from the "Merry Old Land of Oz", and you can see why. As blockbuster musicals go, it ticks many of the boxes required: it's slick, filled with in-jokes, has more power ballads than Michael Bolton, and manages to make the relationship between two witches seem like the growing bond between a goth and a cheerleader from a teen film.
Geoffrey Maguire's novel and Winnie Holzman's book of the show both hinge on the fact that the audience needs to know what makes a witch "wicked". This means that much of the plot is often explained to the audience through the dialogue. Call me old fashioned, but sometimes it's nice to have an evil character who does not have a reason. Their evil doings then become a cause for celebration and the audience can secretly root for them.
Instead, here Elphaba (Nikki Davis-Jones) and Glinda (Emily Tierney) comes across like students from McKinley High in Glee. The two actresses acquit themselves well, however, and give far more than is on the page. Tierney in particular has a real knack for comedy and Davis-Jones delivers many of the well known songs with panache - including my favourite, "No Good Deed."
For a show that so many have seen, there are a surprising number of flat moments and the show is far too long. Characters such as Boq and Fiyero, meanwhile, do not have a great deal to contribute beyond their fantasy names. For the audience, it's all about the witches.
The feeling you get from Wicked is akin to a Lett's GCSE guide of a book you like - it spells everything out and leaves nothing to your imagination. For a show about a flying witch, it lacks the awe and wonder of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Wizard of Oz. A witch flying over the audience a la Mary Poppins would help.
But the audience on the night I attended loved the show and whooped and cheered throughout. This touring version is polished and the cast do not put a foot wrong. The ensemble may be small, but they all deliver in every scene. And, as a touring production, you are not cheated - this has "West End quality" running through it like a stick of rock.
If you prefer your musicals to be like a Summer movie blockbuster, then Wicked is for you. Me? I prefer the original Wizard of Oz, as "there's no place like home."