Theatre Review: Wicked, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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  Image Source: Matt Crockett

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy Drama
Date: March 8 2018
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool

There are shows, and then there are big shows (and I don’t mean Paul Wight). Wicked is definitely a big show, and it’s also one of the best.

Most people reading this review likely know the tale of The Wizard Of Oz, itself one of the greatest movies ever made. Wicked, based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, takes the story of TWOO and retells it, from the perspective of the Wicked Witch, Elphaba (Amy Webb). Far from a panto-like biography of a truly evil, over-the-top character, Wicked explains how the witch adopted her persona, emphasising that she started life like anybody else, bar one major difference – her green skin colour. That she was born and raised in the mysterious land of Oz probably didn’t help her situation.

From birth, she was deemed an outcast by her own family, and upon starting school, she instantly stood out like a sore thumb, even in a world where the strange and the bizarre is a little more commonplace (her teacher is Dr. Dillamond, played by Steven Pinder, who himself is a goat, though he speaks and behaves like everybody else). Glinda (Helen Woolf) – pronounced “Gaalinda” as she repeatedly reminds fellow characters – is the popular girl, the self-absorbed girl, the girl who believes that her excrement doesn’t stink and that she is the very embodiment of life. So, when she is forced to become roommates with the unsociable and unpopular Elphaba, she is horrified.

Their relationship gets off to a rocky start, and matters aren’t helped when Prince Fiyero (Aaron Sidwell), your typical handsome, confident young man who all the females want to be with, quickly becomes attracted to Glinda. Tensions become further strained when Elphaba’s younger sister Nessarose (Emily Shaw) is given an invite to a student party by Glinda, under the proviso that Boq – played by Iddon Jones – who himself fancies Glinda) has a crush on her, thus warping her mind too. I should mention that Nessarose is in a wheelchair, and that Elphaba feels guilt that this was the case, believing the trauma her family received upon discovering Elphaba’s green skin had a detrimental effect on her sister’s health too.

Elphaba attends the party, and the room stops silent to watch her awkward attempts at dancing, which elicit laughter. But Glinda develops compassion, and copies her dance moves to help her feel better. Quickly, the whole room are dancing in the same way, and this is the first step towards Elphaba and Glinda becoming true, close friends. But trouble is on the horizon as Dr. Dillamond, who had already received a threat on the classroom blackboard, is removed from the school, seemingly due to discrimination against animals to prevent them from speaking. This leads to a lion cub being caged and tranquilised, at which point Elphaba makes use of her magical powers (which at this point she knows that she possesses, but has no idea what they are capable of) to halt the cruelty. Fiyero is unharmed, and he helps Elphaba to take the lion cub away to safety. This is the first step towards Elphaba and Fiyero developing feelings for each other, which is a problem considering that Glinda is soon planning to marry the Prince.

In the meantime, the Wizard Of Oz wishes to meet Elphaba, and she brings Glinda with her to the Emerald City. Once there, they learn the true extent of Elphaba’s powers as she – and only she – can read the spells from the book Grimmerie. Unfortunately, once cast, spells cannot be reversed, so when a group of trapped monkeys within the Wizard’s lair spread wings and begin to fly, conflict arises between Elphaba (now in Witch attire) and the Wizard, partly because she realises that he has been responsible for the animals-can’t-act-like-humans movement. As Elphaba fights back and runs to hide, with Glinda following her, she is officially deemed an enemy, hence her slow transformation into becoming a Wicked Witch.

From there, Elphaba remains on the run, bumping into her former friends time and again. The relationship between Glinda and Fiyero becomes a rocky one, and though the Witch aims to use her spells for good (such as trying to help Nessarose to walk), more often they are a hindrance, causing unseen problems to residents and the land of Oz alike. Eventually, she accepts her Wickedness, and around this time, we notice some unusual happenings to certain residents, as they transform into – well, I won’t spoil it here, but I’ll just say that the references to the original movie are inserted very well into this story, and what’s more, you aren’t prepared for the comedic revelations, even though logic suggests that such outcomes would be obvious. Other references to the movie throughout the show, particularly in the second half, weave the story of Wicked into the original Wizard Of Oz plot in an extremely clever manner, and don’t assume that you’ll know the ending of this musical, because you may just be surprised.

There’s plenty going on in this show, and it’s a lengthy production (almost three hours, including the interval), but it is well worth watching. There are some uneventful scenes, but they are more than offset by the moments that make you go “Wow!” There are the truly outstanding singing performances, especially by Amy Webb who hits the high notes to such a degree that she brings the house down. There’s the soundtrack itself, which has some great numbers including No One Mourns The Wicked, No Good Deed and Defying Gravity. There’s the colourful and authentic costumes, which elevate the show to another level.

The acting performances are spot-on; Amy Webb is perfect as the social outcast-turned-magical powerhouse Elphaba, and Helen Woolf, whilst deliberately annoying at times as Glinda, plays her role marvellously. The production reaches an even higher standard through the amazing special effects and props, including the door to the Wizard’s castle (which lights up and has an automated moving mouth for speech), the use of trapeze ropes to allow characters to fly, and a huge dragon situated above the stage, which occasionally adds some extra impact to a particularly dramatic scene. There’s also the colourful lighting, the engaging plot, the comedy which manages to elicit plenty of laughs whilst remaining family-friendly – as an overall package, the show is practically flawless.

As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a single thing about the show that I would change. The only point I would make is that, if you’re in the minority who have never seen nor heard about The Wizard Of Oz, then some of the references may confuse you. Otherwise, though, it’s fantastic, as Wicked lives up to its major hype. There are stunning performances all round, the story is superbly written and blends in with the classic movie in so many brilliant and clever ways, and there will be so many elements that you will remember when you leave the theatre.

Wicked is running for the rest of the month at Liverpool Empire, and judging by this performance, an enormous amount of people are going to want to see this show. If you’re on the fence, I urge you to book tickets and come along to experience the magic of Wicked, as it really is a must-see. Incredible.

Overall Rating: 10/10 – Perfect