Theatre Review: Wicked @ Bristol Hippodrome
by Polly Hember
"It’s not hard to see why it is one of the most celebrated and successful musicals of all time."
The phenomenally pop-u-laar West End and Broadway musical Wicked premiered back in 2003 and has been met with unadulterated loving by fans and critics alike. It recently became the fifteenth longest running show in West End theatre history and has flown into Bristol Hippodrome this February. It’s a dazzling spectacle of a show that explores the powers of friendship, engages with tense polemics around freedom of speech, animal rights, scapegoating (quite literally) and the propagation of slander and fake news. With an incredibly emotive score boasting songs that will stick with you long after you leave the theatre, phenomenal production and staging and spectacular performances from the entire ensemble – it’s not hard to see why it is one of the most celebrated and successful musicals of all time.
Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked that playfully subverts and reimagines the characters of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Focusing on the tale of Elphaba, and how she came to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West, the musical starts where the film ends, with villagers rejoicing at the Wicked Witch’s demise. Glinda the Good leads us down her (yellow brick) memory lane, uncovering a heart-warming blossoming of their unlikely friendship, and the heart-wrenching tale of the injustice thrust upon Elphaba. Born green in a superficial world that ostracises her, Elphaba and the blonde and beautiful Glinda meet at university where they are forced to share a room. Their quarrelling and eventual friendship is set against a murky political backdrop where animals, which talk and are revered as academic professors and philosophers, are being oppressed, stripped of their ability to speak, segregated and caged.
Seamlessly woven into the magical tapestry of The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy’s adventures – we understand why the cowardly Lion is so scared, how the Tin Man lost his heart, how the Scarecrow came to be pinned up in that field, and ask ourselves what makes people do wicked things.
The story is timeless, engaging with dark issues around oppressive hegemonies, freedom of speech and the redeeming powers of friendship. The relationship between. Elphaba’s coming-of-age trajectory is utterly immersive, putting you on the edge of your seat, regardless of whether it’s your first time seeing Wicked or your fifth.
Amy Ross was a charming Elphaba; she instantly engages the audience, airing on the side of upbeat rather than scorned from the start of the production, Ross had the entire theatre rooting for the wicked (anti-)heroine. She delivered flawless vocals throughout the entire performance, performing brilliant duets and solos alike. Her renditions of “I’m Not That Girl”, “Defying Gravity” and “No Good Deed” were stunning, conveying soaring vocals alongside the intensity of emotion in these pivotal moments.
Helen Woolf captured both the humour and conflict of Glinda perfectly. She performed a breathy, posh-girl “Popular” in the first act, then launched into her duplicitous second half with sincerity and conviction. She presents a wholly believable Glinda, who knows the truth about the corruption of Oz and is grieving for her friend but, as a political or public leader, presents only a fraction of the inner turmoil she feels to enact necessary change at the dénouement. Fiyero is always a debonair character, but Aaron Sidwell was almost unbelievably smooth in his effortless handling of the role. He presents a sensitive Fiyero who is as charming as ever, avoiding the bulshiness that can sometimes accompany his confidence.
Stephen Schwartz’s score is as emotive as ever, boosted with the momentum of a live orchestra and incredible vocals. A big, accomplished production with intricate and elaborate staging and design that is hugely effective. Glinda descends from floating bubbles, flying monkeys shriek and swirl around the stage, Elphaba enchants a broomstick that takes her to the sky when she defies gravity, statues and school classrooms appear, transporting you instantly from Muchkinland to the Emerald City. It’s a fluid and perfected performance that avoids any cheesiness that sometimes accompanies the musical genre, and instead engages with relevant and important issues that resonate strongly with our current day politics. It disavows segregation and prejudice, champions freedom of speech, encourages activism and standing up for other’s rights and for what you believe in. It presents strong female roles and complex, non-binary characters who all undergo some form of transformation or epiphany. Most importantly, it treasures human connection and friendship.
Wicked endures for all of these reasons, and more. Get ready to laugh, to cry, to feel as you watch one of the greatest underdog stories of all time.
Wicked runs at the Bristol Hippodrome until 3 March 2018, book tickets here.