REVIEW: WICKED (Apollo Victoria Theatre) ★★★★★
Wicked, based on the American novel ‘Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West’ by Gregory Maguire, is not, in fact, a prequel as everyone deems. The musical, utilising the same themes and characters as The Wizard of Oz, is described by the author as ‘a re-imagining of the same world’, eclipsing the narrative of the classic Dorothy adventure to create a ‘parallel universe’.
Regardless of it’s pre-existing draw, the show opened at the Apollo Victoria 12 years ago to a blast of unsavoury reviews. The Times claiming ‘I’d rather see The Wizard of Oz 20 times than this ersatz show once’ wobbled box office sales for the first few months. It was not until the onslaught of fandom rushed thick and fast with social media that Wicked became the cult success we see shimmering green today.
The show’s key demographic is teenage girls who relate to the unlikely but profound friendship between Glinda ‘the Good’ and the ‘wicked’ Elphaba. But for a piece clocking up almost 50 scenes, it covers everything from betrayal, prejudice, love, loss, heartbreak and justice – all within a world so bizarre that nothing is too on the nose.
After winning 3 Tony awards and an Olivier, the show soon saw an outbreak of daily queues lining the streets if news had hit that a new cast member was added or an understudy was debuting. Happily for the producers, in-work actors and theatre, the hype has never wained and instead Wicked has slotted snuggly into the landscape of the West End.
It’s tough to view this set-in-stone production with fresh – and judgemental – eyes. It also doesn’t help that the entire affair screams five stars, right down to the show-themed carpets. I took a friend with me who had never seen the show (yes, they still exist) to ensure this marketing monstrosity hadn’t lost its magic.
Wicked straddles the threshold of so many genres that it feels only natural to claim it as a mini genre in itself. The score flits between rock, ballad and light opera all laced through with that allegorical Schwartz melody. However, it’s the vocals which keep audiences astonished night after night. Harmonies are layered closely and belted loudly while ribbons twirl, exotic, shiny costumes glint and a dragon shakes his head and puffs smoke above your head. It all amalgamates into quite a spectacle. One which had my guest’s eyes transfixed on the emerald leader of the tribe, the Wicked Witch of the West.
There’s no pressure quite like starring as Elphaba in Wicked. The part is not only coveted, but brazenly anticipated, judged and worshipped. Idina Menzel who originated the role on Broadway back in 2003 set the bar for how an actress’ career sky-rockets once that green paint hits the skin. The belting icon eventually went on to become a household name for voicing the role of Elsa in the Disney masterstroke Frozen and enjoys a successful career filling stadiums with solo tours and having her pick of roles on Broadway. Alice Fearn took up the role in 2016 and has built up her own fandom ever since. She is fiery, outspoken and a beholds a vocal range so wildly authoritative, its any wonder why she even needs a microphone. Fearn is everything Elphaba should be and coupled with the sweet (if a little dull) Glinda played by Maria Coyne, the pair soar through the score effortlessly, with ‘For Good’ clamping the throats of many an audience member.
Having seen the show multiple times throughout its run of over a decade, there is a trend which irks me. The female roles are played by only the most elite women UK musical theatre has to offer and yet their male co-stars are always, well, underwhelming. This 12th anniversary performance was no different. Suave, worldly Fiyero drives a majority of the story and should be commanding and saucy. However, Eastenders star David Witts takes a slightly blithering approach to the role, with precarious vocals which are exposed further when singing alongside Fearn in ‘As Long as You’re Mine’. Andy Hockley as the Wizard also fails to thrill with second-rate vocals.
It seems the show wants to insert a minor celebrity into the cast as a safety blanket for success and in doing so, rests its reputation of vocal excellence purely on the shoulders of the women. When in fact, Wicked’s greatest asset is its consistent quality. Something which should not be compromised under any circumstances.
Despite everything, there is no denying this glittering bombshell is an extravaganza for the eyes, ears and soul. At the end of the night balloons and confetti were dropped celebrating 12 years and 55 million people having seen the show to date. There is a spirit about the Apollo Victoria, an atmosphere which celebrates a phenomenon that didn’t only defy gravity, but defied the odds.
Reviewed by Nicole Darvill-Batten
Photo: Darren Bell