25 September 2006

Wicked, Apollo Victoria, 26th September 2006

Warning – contains plot spoilers!

Occasionally, I get to see a show which makes up for all the dross. Was this good? Was this superb? Was this magnificent? No! It was WICKED! The vibe before curtain up was indicative of the fact that the audience (as over-excited as a coachload of flying monkeys and with a very high PPSI - poofs per square inch- ratio) knew we were in for a good time.

Even before the curtain went up, the scenery surrounding the stage promised much. Those of my readers familiar with the book upon which the show is based will know that The Dragon Clock is a major presence in the early chapters, with peoples’ futures being foretold by puppets which appear in niches in the clock. Well, this is exactly what we got – with the stage being surrounded by clockwork and a fab winged dragon peering down from the top, the action of the show was presented just as if it were one of the fortune-telling vignettes. Each time Fate showed her hand in characters’ lives, the dragon sprang to life and the cogs and pinwheels turned to spin the wheels of fortune. Fab idea!

The libretto had been skilfully and sensitively adapted from the book text, leaving out none of the action but much of the political tub-thumping which makes Maguire’s book rather heavy going on occasion. There were a few occasions when I could have done with fewer laughs and more tension – when the story of “Wicked” catches up with that of “The Wizard of Oz” in the second act, Winnie Holzman (librettist) goes for broad comedy which touches on panto. Glinda, having waved (the unseen) Dorothy off from Munchkinland, calls after her “Keep straight on! Its just the one road all the way!” and then asides to the audience “I do hope that’s right. I always was so bad at giving directions!” In the Castle of the Wicked Witch of the West (in the show called Elphaba), the Witch calls down to Dorothy through a trap door “If you want to see your Auntie Em and Uncle Whats-his-name again, I suggest you get those damned shoes off!” When such lines come, as they do, at very dramatic moments in the plot, the laugh they get from the audience completely diffuses any sense of dramatic tension. And I’m sorry, but the very tidy “happy” ending was a little more than I could stomach. The Witch is supposed to die, we all know that. She does so in the film, and in Maguire’s book – a martyr to “Truth” and “Public Opinion”. (The famous “bucket of water” death scene was extremely disappointingly staged, played out in silhouette behind a rather manky curtain – always an easy option.) But in the stage version, the death of one’s leading character is not to be countenanced and Elphaba, having faked her own death with the help of a convenient trapdoor, is spared to disappear off into a happy exile with Fiyero. To make this ending even tidier, Elphaba has changed Fiyero into the Scarecrow Without a Brain in order to save him from the Wizard’s militia. Too neat, too tidy, too Happy Ever After.

The venue for all this is the Apollo Victoria, recently restored to much of its 1930s Art Deco glory. Interesting that much of the décor is apple green, a colour which suits this show right down to the ground. And walking into the auditorium is just like walking into the Hollywood version of the Emerald City. I doubt the Emerald City was ever so cold though – the air conditioning was on so high that I sat and shivered through most of the first act. Theatre Manager please note!

Incidentally – one minor point. Baum’s story makes it perfectly clear that the Emerald City isn’t actually green, but only appears to be so because its residents are forced to wear spectacles with green lenses. But the Emerald City we got on stage was definitely green, even though both Galinda and Elphaba donned the requisite specs (briefly) – nobody else did, I noticed.

Anyway, enough of carping. Let’s talk performances!

The Wizard was played by Nigel Planer, who did all that was necessary with the role if not all that was possible. His attempts at dancing were faintly embarrassing, as were his attempts at singing two songs in the inimitable and rather risible style of Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”. It was strange to see such a capable and well-seasoned performer as Miriam Margolyes take on such a “non part” as Madame Morrible, but I enjoyed her “take” on the part as a slightly eccentric Mrs. Slocombe. Margloyes is well known for her “fat lady” parts, but was hardly helped by a series of unflattering costumes which obviously limited her movement. Her final costume made her look like an over-upholstered sofa – the kind you dare not sit on comfortably for fear that all the stuffing will pop out. On the rare occasions when Morrible’s true nature is allowed out of its protective padding, Margolyes was truly scary. Katie Rowley Jones made the best of a thankless part as Nessarose, and Adam Garcia was suitably decorative as a strapping Fiyero.

Helen Dallimore’s Galinda was extremely disappointing. Galinda is a young lady of considerable means with rich, influential parents, and it was a shame that Dallimore’s performance failed to reflect this. Her occasionally strangulated vowel sounds and slippery accent made her come across as more of an Essex Girl Made Good, rather than a sleek and sophisticated Sloane Ranger. Expecting a young Billie Burke who, as Glinda in the film of WOZ, epitomised the daffiness of the inbred upper classes, I got a Jade Goody. And vocally, I’m afraid she was Just Not Good(y) Enough. It’s a difficulty and very high soprano role, needing the ability to almost yodel notes in “Popular” and Dallimore just couldn’t cut these. In fact, “Popular” was by far the most disappointingly sung number in the whole show.

Star of the evening, without any shadow of a doubt, was the fantastic Idina Menzel as Elphaba. So confident that we were going to be wowed by her, the audience broke into applause on her first entrance and before she had said a word or sung a note – which is an accolade the public reserve only for the BIGGEST stars. And by golly, this girl is going to be BIG. Elphaba is an extremely difficult part – it can’t be easy playing a role which all of us have associated from childhood with pure evil. Elphaba has to change the audience’s perception of the Wicked Witch of the West and make her credible and sympathetic. Obviously Menzel is helped here by the fantastically written libretto, but her performance skilfully avoided the temptation to play it “penny plain, tuppence coloured”. And my lord – what a voice this woman has. Her Act One finale number – “Defying Gravity” is still ringing round in my head. Not a wobble, not a catch, just pure, sustained notes of incredible power and intensity. How she can manage to turn in such a fantastic performance 8 times a week is beyond me. If she doesn’t get wheelbarrow loads of awards for WICKED, then I’ll eat my black pointy hat. I can only say that this was a WWW that would have made Margaret Hamilton glow green with pride.

I could heap praise on this show for hours, but let the final accolade come from Him Indoors. Miss Menzel – Clive wants to come and see the show again. Crikey! How WICKED is that!

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