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Wicked

By • West End
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We’re back in the land of Oz – and it’s a very good time to be here. While Kerry Ellis just keeps getting better and better vocally and emotionally as Elphaba - her outstanding performance as the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West is worthy of its own award - she’s now been joined by several new, largely welcome additions, not least her co-star Dianne Pilkington, who’s taken over from original London cast member Helen Dallimore as Glinda the Good Witch.

With a wonderful voice and superb comic timing, Pilkington fits perfectly into her role – and succeeds in maximising the laugh factor. Her big song “Popular” becomes a real showstopper that leaves the audience in hysterics. But she also succeeds in plucking the heart strings, particularly in the touching “Ozdust Ballroom” scene. The love-hate relationship between Elphaba and Glinda is crucial to the show’s plot, and as the two rivals Ellis and Pilkington match each other in spades, thereby raising the emotional stakes to captivating effect.

Oliver Thompsett, who has taken over as Fiyero, doesn’t yet feel fully settled into his role as the charming boy who comes between the two friends. His dancing lacks the power to own the stage during his big number “Dancing Through Life”, and there’s little genuine chemistry between him and Elphaba. That said, he does compensate with a powerful voice.

Elsewhere, Andy Mace gives his all as Dr Dillamond, to pleasing effect, and Susie Blake makes a delicious Madame Morrible opposite a weary, supposedly “wonderful” Wizard of Oz Nigel Planer, who should stop walking the yellow brick road soon - he seems to have lost all energy for the show.

Still, Wicked is fantastic family entertainment – spellbinding even – and now more magical than ever thanks to Ellis and Pilkington. Oh, and the sets are still elaborate and the costumes divine. Magical.

- Ryan Woods


Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from January 2007.

Kerry Ellis had big shoes to fill when she took over from Tony Award-winner Idina Menzel in the role of Elphaba, the “wicked” green-skinned witch in the much-hyped Broadway hit Wicked. And fill them she does, as her assured, vocally and emotionally powerful performance is easily on a par with that of her predecessor.

While Menzel played the role with her own American accent, Ellis' Elphaba bears the new star's natural English accent, which works well in dialogue. Curiously, she opts to perform some of the songs with more than a hint of a transatlantic influence, no doubt a mark indelibly left by Menzel who created the now almost iconic role. However, Ellis has an incredibly strong voice which does not suffer by comparison. She raises the roof with her "Wizard and I", "Defying Gravity" and "No Good Deed". All of these seem to require enormous lung power, and Ellis delivers it.

But that said, where she really triumphs is in creating a more believable character of Elphaba, with her awkward, nervous mannerisms on arrival at the University of Shiz (which is to Wicked what Hogwarts is to Harry Potter) gradually giving way to a more confident, mature personality. The humour she brings to the role is enjoyable and stirring. Where Menzel was slightly too “Hollywood”, Ellis keeps it real. Well, as real as you can be in a world of flying monkeys and tin men.

The other lead cast members continue to please, in particular Helen Dallimore, who plays the ever-popular Glinda and is hilarious in her big song, "Popular". There’s a touching relationship between the two “witches”, and a genuine spark between Ellis and Adam Garcia as the dashing Fiyero.

Wicked is good family entertainment, and though it may try too hard to be worthy by over-emphasising its messages of friendship and tolerance (and there are some horribly cringe-worthy lines, particularly in Act Two), there's plenty here to please its legions of fans, new and old, for many months to come.

- Caroline Ansdell


Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from September 2006 and this production's original opening night with previous Elphaba, Idina Menzel.

Wicked is something of a mystery to me. In telling the back story, or prequel, to Frank L Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, it delves into all sorts of interesting areas of political speculation, friendship, the price of popularity and the layered relationships between the human, animal and supernatural kingdoms.

And yet 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. While I found the musical both confusing and overwhelming in New York two years ago, I was more struck by the obvious effect it had on an audience for whom The Wizard of Oz is a Biblical text and Gregory Maguire’s cult 1995 novel Wicked, the musical’s main source, and sauce, a valid expression of a national curiosity about the characters.

How did the Wicked Witch exactly become so “wicked”? Winnie Holzman’s adaptation of Maguire’s novel and the songs of Stephen Schwartz transport us back in time to a pre-mythical journey through the fantasy land of Oz: in the University of Shiz, on an away-day to the Emerald City, deep in the tangled forests of flying monkeys and high on the turrets of the Wizard’s Palace.

It turns out, of course, that the Wicked Witch, Elphaba, wasn’t really wicked at all, just green. Her friendship with the Good Witch of the North, Glinda, is the show’s axis, and their college pal Fiyero, a self-regarding playboy, their target of romantic competition. In standing up for truth and justice – represented by her climactic Act One closer, “Defying Gravity” – Elphaba finds herself on the wrong side of the political regime in Oz and Glinda has to find a way of redefining their friendship.

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, as when she's presented with the black hat that looks something like the crooked spire of the church at Chesterfield and her life ahead crumbles to dust in a single look. 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, taking another significant step on his latter-day progress through musical comedy roles. In the big onward sweep of the show, some characters, especially that of Elphaba’s crippled sister Nessarose (Katie Rowley Jones) get lost in the wake. But that may seem a footling complaint in the cynical showbiz land of Oz where the biggest bang makes the biggest bucks and humanity, in the end, goes to the wall.

- Michael Coveney


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