Something 'Wicked' this way comes
Last night I went to Birmingham Hippodrome to see the theatre’s big summer production –‘Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz’.
The UK’s busiest theatre was suitably decked out in green and, I think, full to capacity, save for the one seat next to me, which housed.... my bag (I was unaware I had a spare ticket, I’m getting strife today).
However, sat there alone was quite a liberating experience, and even though it appeared as if I had been stood up, I was completely transported to Oz without the distractions of a fellow human being.
It had been a while since I had seen a theatre production, and as the lights dimmed and the orchestra began I got a tingle of excitement that made me wonder what had kept me away for so long.
It quickly became evident to me why Wicked has become one of the longest running Broadway shows in history; It has the perfect mix of humour and melancholy. If I was a more emotional / less stable individual I would have been crying and then laughing through the tears and then laughing and fighting back the tears. It’s a real rollercoaster I tell you!
As many people believe ‘Wicked’ is not actually a prequel, but spans events prior, during and post those in the classic 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’. This production is not based on any of L. Frank Baum’s 14 books but the novel by Gregory Maguire ‘Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West’.
This story is told from the perspective of two of Oz's witches - Glinda (The Good Witch of the North) and Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West) and it is fascinating to see what is occurring in parallel with what you know from the film, there are a number of clever twists and real ‘ahaaa’ moments that you immediately want to spill to everybody as soon as you come out the theatre. I’m trying to be good, I once told a friend the endings to both ‘Se7en’ and the ‘Sixth Sense’; actually I might make it the triple with this.
One of the most interesting things for me was seeing Elphaba’s transition from good to bad, I always find this an interesting thematic, and, being a man I guess the nearest similar example I can cite is the Star Wars prequels and Anakin Skywalker’s demise into Darth Vader; don’t fear though this is told with much more aplomb and some of the reasons and motivations behind Elphaba’s downfall are really rather heartbreaking. (SPOILER: The RSPCA would be proud of her).
The set dressing is, as you would expect, out of this world, even the stage curtain is one of the best I’ve seen - an intricate map of Oz with a glistening Emerald City at the core - I took a picture of it just as a voice announced no photography, so I won’t publish it here. As you’d expect there are some great effects throughout; flying actors, the wizard’s guise and one sequence of shadow play were highlights.
The costumes - fantastic; I especially liked the citizens of Oz, and their extravagant green attire. When I go to the theatre I often like to watch the background players, I find it interesting to follow their movements and watch what they are getting up to on stage behind the main action, the attention to detail on even the background character's clothing was indicative of the high production values. There are a number of creatures throughout the story too and their make-up was brilliant; here's Doctor Dillamond an oppressed goat...
Talking of animals – The infamous flying monkeys are greatly realised – and add a dash of horror to proceedings, they’re actually quite frightening - but saying that I think my 5 year old would have relished it, although she’s at that stage where she likes to be scared and is fascinated by witches. I’d probably say 8 would be a good benchmark for age restrictions as the politics of the story are perhaps a bit too complex for anyone younger than this.
A lot of Act 1 plays for a young crowd, and it’s a little like watching The Wizard of Oz High - I was surprised at how witty the script was, the majority of the best lines went to Glinda (Emily Tierney), she was the stand-out performance for me; I have not laughed at any one character so much for quite some time; she reminded me a bit of Alicia Silverstone in 'Clueless'. Having said that though things do get much deeper, and the unlikely friendship between the two witches was perfectly pitched - there are some really sweet moments between the two main characters.
Tonight the part of the Wicked Witch of the West was played by the stand by Elphaba, Jemma Alexander, but I really can’t see anyone besting this performance, she was fantastic and her gradual transition into the wicked witch we know in the film was done terrifically. However, I’m sure the lead Nikki Davis-Jones is also spectacular – perhaps her broom had broken down last night?
The music and lyrics were especially catchy - There were a number of standout moments throughout the production, but the Act 1 closer ‘Defying Gravity’ was a spine-tingling, goose pimple enducing number that left everyone buzzing for the second half. We were actually singing it in the office this morning.
As I mentioned L. Frank Baums Oz universe is expanded through 14 books and whilst I was familiar with some of the character’s backstory that is not depicted in the film, there is some fascinating stuff in here - one final twist in the story is a real rug pull and this coupled with a rousing final number soon had the whole auditorium on its feet at the close applauding and whooping heartedly.
If you’re going to see the show, you are probably already au fait with the 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (I watch it quite regularly, as it’s a favourite of my daughters); but if you aren’t I urge you to revisit it before you go, as the story will have much more resonance and little in-jokes in the script will become apparent.
Prior to last tonight, and for no particular reason, I had had a few years’ hiatus from the theatre. Wicked reminded me how enjoyable and immersive an experience it is. On my way out a lady was handing out flyers for CATS, I took one gladly because I’ll definitely be back to Birmingham Hippodrome more than once this year.
Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz runs until 6 September and I implore you to go.
To see what is on throughout the season visit Birmingham Hippodrome's website here.
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