Broadway blockbuster musical Wicked opened last night at the West End’s Apollo Victoria Theatre (See News, 16 Dec 2005), complete with a green carpet for the celebrities dotted among the audience, and cheers from the supportive crowd as each of the main characters arrived on stage. But did it live up to the hype?

Wicked tells the “untold story” of the Witches of Oz - popular blonde Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and her spin-victim friend Elphaba, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West – who were both immortalised in the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz. The show has a book by Winnie Holtzman, based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.

American Idina Menzel makes her West End debut reprising her Tony Award-winning Broadway performance as Elphaba, while Australian Helen Dallimore plays “good witch” Glinda. Adam Garcia (Fiyero), Nigel Planer (The Wizard), Miriam Margolyes (Madame Morrible), James Gillan (Boq) and Katie Rowley Jones (Nessarose) also star. The London production reunites the New York creative team, led by director Joe Mantello and designer Eugene Lee.

The majority of overnight critics enjoyed the spectacle of the lavish production, and the “powerhouse” performances of Menzel and Dallimore as the Wicked and Good Witches, respectively. However, they also said the show was overblown, occasionally preachy, and suffered from more hype than heart.

  • Michael Coveney on (3 stars) – “For all its spectacular beauty, ingenious costumes, literate lyrics and well crafted songs, the show is curiously cold and often, unlike the original yellow brick road, quite hard to follow.... Joe Mantello’s production, with designs by Eugene Lee and costumes by Susan Hilferty, is a miracle of staging and showmanship, full of witty allusions to the 1939 MGM movie, but equally determined to create its own visual world within a huge arrangement of cogs, lifts, steel structures and scenic daubs. The songs, too, cover the full range of point numbers, anthems and power ballads with a sure grasp of satirical intent and emotional energy. As on Broadway, Idina Menzel’s Elphaba is a green-skinned dynamo with a surging voice and a wonderfully light touch…. Her opposite number, Glinda, the prom school queen with a popularity obsession, is beautifully played and sung – if a little too squeakily at first – by Australian newcomer Helen Dallimore. Adam Garcia plays Fiyero with far less comic bluster than did Norbert Leo Butz originally, but he has a wild and compensating charm. Miriam Margolyes makes a fully rounded (in every sense of the word) character of Madame Morrible, the headmistress at Shiz who becomes the Wizard’s press secretary, while the Wizard himself is delightfully played by Nigel Planer.”

  • Sheridan Morley in the Daily Express – “This is a truly eccentric affair…. To judge from the way the first night audience was cheering as at a rock concert from the outset, I suspect it may… prove triumphant over here for its sheer spectacle…. While no Sondheim, Schwartz writes a succession of songs which admirably fit the fast changing moods. Idina Menzel recreates her Tony Award-winning performance as the Wicked Witch, with Helen Dallimore now playing the sickly sweet Glinda. Nigel Planer is perhaps a little lightweight as the Wizard, but he makes up for that in the score’s one show-stopping number, ‘Wonderful’. For the rest, just sit back and marvel at what it must all have cost, preferably without recalling the movie too clearly or indeed too affectionately.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) – “Friends of Dorothy may be diverted by this musical prequel to The Wizard of Oz. But, although it has been a hit in New York, it seems all too typical of the modern Broadway musical: efficient, knowing and highly professional but more like a piece of industrial product than something that genuinely touches the heart or mind…. There is a certain zest about the love-hate relationship between the despised Elphaba and the glamorous Glinda, who are college contemporaries. Stephen Schwartz's lyrics even display an unusual literacy…. Miriam Margolyes, as a statuesque, magic-dispensing college principal, has a Dickensian exuberance that evokes the world of Boz more than Oz. Having whetted our appetites, Wicked lapses into knowingness and moralism…. Worse still, the musical decides it has to make a public statement about the importance of sisterhood. In the least beguiling number in the show, Elphaba and Glinda jointly and unconvincingly assert: ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.’ Admittedly, the show is well performed. As Elphaba, Idina Menzel possesses lungs of brass and displays the vulnerability of the congenital loner. Helen Dallimore's Glinda is very funny as the peachy blonde who begins by announcing ‘it's good to see me, isn't it?’ and gradually evolves into an Evita-style power-broker. Nigel Planer potters around effectively as the not-so-wonderful wizard and Adam Garcia endows the male romantic interest Fiyero with a louche charm.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “The account of fickle girly relationships is told with wit and panache…. At times the show undoubtedly slips into preachy. But mercifully Winnie Holzman’s script keeps the gags coming as it cleverly subverts the film that spawned it. And Joe Mantello’s production… is packed with spectacular coups de theatre…. Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics are occasionally touched with wit, but what he really specialises in are big gloopy power ballads that allow the two female leads to stand centre stage and soar into the stratospheric. This they do with some style. Idina Menzel… offers a winning powerhouse performance as Elphaba…. Helen Dallimore is at times laugh-out-loud funny as the pert, preening Glinda…. 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, and deserves a wider audience than adolescent schoolgirls.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent – “The audience was so papered with connected people that everything was greeted with uniform ecstasy. Green-faced and in hideously clashing student clothes, Idina Menzel had merely to walk on stage, as Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch, and the roof came off…. I confess that my tummy lurched pleasurably during the evening's big uplifting number…. The Wonderful Wizard (a very poor Nigel Planer) is exposed early on as a fraudulent coward, who, because he can't read his own spell-literature, has to unite the country by demonising sections of the community - animals, Munchkins etc. The attempt at topical political allegory is well-meaning but also melodramatic, incoherent and dreadfully superficial…. I enjoyed very little apart from the delicious Miriam Margolyes…. The songs sound like dozens you've heard before. The acting is, by and large, appalling. The book is aimed uncertainly at several constituencies. The production manages to feel at once overblown and empty. As the crowds heaved up for air during the interval, a lady next to me asked: ‘Are you liking it?’ ‘I'm afraid I'm not,’ I replied. There was a ghastly pause. ‘Well, everyone else is!’ she barked. I fear the show's message about the need to assert the right to be different may not be getting across.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell