It’s unlikely you’re reading this to find out if Wicked is any good. Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s musical has taken the world by storm, or should that be tornado, since its inception in 2003. The thousands of performances in the West End and on Broadway, as well as productions in fourteen more countries, speak volumes, and this touring production at the Edinburgh Playhouse is an unexpectedly brilliant piece of musical theatre. But there’s a lot more to Wicked than just superb production values, performances and hit songs.
Nothing is lost off-West End: the effects are breathtakingly impressive, particularly scenic designer Eugene Lee’s coup de theatre at the end of Act I (there’ll be no details beyond that for fear of spoiling too much). It’s large scale, impeccably delivered stuff, produced, created and performed by artists at the very top of their game, without exception. There’s only one tune you’re likely to go away humming, but not every show needs loads of singalong numbers. The composition is clever and requires a skilled and athletic approach to the vocals from the two female leads (because this show is all about the ladies – yet another reason it’s so good).
Amy Ross stars as “wicked” witch Elphaba, with a stunning, spin tingling mezzo belt as well as impressive light, shade and ability to switch between head and chest voice to remarkable effect. Her rendition of Defying Gravity brings the house down, not only because of her fantastic voice, but also her detailed, relatable, real, funny and moving interpretation of a kind loner who suffers because of the colour of her skin – an ever topical theme, 15 years on.
Helen Woolf co-stars as “good” witch Glinda, although her characterisation runs deeper than the two-dimensional concept of “good” and “bad” as featured in The Wizard of Oz; Glinda is spoilt and shallow, but pantomime funny. Woolf’s eye wateringly high trilling vocals are also brilliant and her portrayal allows us to sympathise with Glinda and love her, although not quite as much as Elphaba – as it should be.
Here’s the really interesting bit about Wicked: the leads are women, and women outstay the male characters significantly in terms of stage time. The relationship between the two girls is the crux of the story, which celebrates female friendship and the overcoming of adversity and prejudice. Positive power, the strength of women and the refutation of society’s obsession with looks are huge themes, and guess what? It puts bums on seats. Big time. Now there’s something Hollywood has (in the main) yet failed to grasp, or is choosing to ignore.
Wicked is moving, funny and effortlessly delivers important cultural and social messages, reaching audiences packed with impressionable young people. So go and see it. Not just because it’s a tour de force, but because it’s a gravity defying force for good.
Photo courtesy of Matt Crockett
Wicked runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until June 8th, 2018.