I originally wrote this review for The Public Reviews. If you're visiting Edinburgh between now and January, it is will worth booking a ticket for, if they haven't sold out!
L. Frank Baum’s fictitious otherland has provided rich creative inspiration for a variety of work since the first of the Oz stories were published over a century ago, but when Gregory Maguire reimagined the whole history of the witches of Oz, with his 1995 novel Wicked, he could scarcely have anticipated the global musical sensation that his work would spawn.
In revising the stories of Glinda the Good (Emily Tierney) and the Wicked Witch of the West, named for the first time as Elphaba (Ashleigh Gray), Maguire gives us a rich and thematically complex story that questions the social functions of creating villains, expounds a treaty on the exploitation of power, and provides an allegory for the recent war on terror, among other things. What defines Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s ‘songification’ of the story, however, is a sense of fun – the entire production is riddled with humour and pathos, as well as some truly catchy musical numbers. It’s not exactly child-friendly, but there’s visual spectacle and energy aplenty to hold the attention of older children, as well as those audience members not otherwise musically enamoured.
Goodness knows it isn’t a perfect production. Aside from some structural issues with the material, Samuel Edwards as happily shallow love-interest Fiyero can’t match the vocal range of the other leads, and his borderline dad-dancing undermines some of the charismatic seduction of the “Dancing Through Life” song and dance sequence; and there’s a tendency for the staging to be over-choreographed, especially during numbers like “Wonderful” where the Wizard (Steven Pinder) flaps and steps his way through a song that bears its true potency through its lyrics. But what makes up for any such shortcomings is the sheer sense of verve and ensemble energy that carries this nearly three-hour production.
Gray’s vocal range and strength as Elphaba are truly world-class. These are not easy songs to sing (however much we might like to think, as we karaoke them on iTunes) and Gray’s performance is not just note- but pitch- and tone-perfect too. Her barnstorming act-one finale “Defying Gravity” is thrilling, whilst the quiet emotion of “I’m Not That Girl” and “As Long As You’re Mine” is tender and heartfelt. Dramatically too there’s a genuine tingle of goosebumps as Gray’s Elphaba erupts into a momentary embodiment of Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch.
She is matched on every level by Tierney’s Glinda, whose verbal and physical comic timing is impeccable, especially in the makeover sequence “Popular” and the anti-lovesong “What Is This Feeling?”. These two leads share a dynamic connection and make for a great double act that gives a sense of authenticity to their relationship, which resolutely avoids becoming a black and white, good and evil dichotomy of characterisation.
Part of the joy of this production is watching the familiar pieces of the Oz-shaped jigsaw puzzle fall into place. We catch echoes of iconic elements from the definitive 1939 MGM film, and there’s a thrill in noting the references that Maguire, Shwartz and Holzman variously embed into the story, even as we trace an entirely different narrative path with its own twists and turns. When the Wicked storyline begins to overlap with the Dorothy-based action from The Wizard of Oz, the latter is kept resolutely off-stage (or, more resonantly, behind a curtain).
You may need to hear some of the songs again before you find yourself humming them, but altogether Wicked is full of visual treats, laugh out loud humour and heart-rending drama. You won’t follow a yellow brick road in quite the same way ever again.
Edinburgh Expert is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh with 18 years of experience living and working in the city.