Award-winning musical Wicked flies back into Manchester for Christmas at the Palace Theatre, the venue where it began its UK tour back in 2013. From the moment the glinting green curtain goes up, it’s easy to see why the show has broken so many records, why it’s been seen by nearly 60 million people and why the Palace audience gave it such a rapturous reception.
Its story—based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, which is in turn inspired by L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz universe—is a celebration of female friendship, one which is complex and enduring and evolves with the characters.
Elphaba (Amy Ross) and Glinda (Helen Woolf) hate each other on sight when they meet at university, but the friendship that blossoms never regresses back to hatred, even when they have morphed into Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West. Individually, they are strong and likeable heroines with both flaws and positive traits. Ross and Woolf play off each other beautifully as the two witches, from the comic interactions of their university days to their poignant parting duet, “For Good”.
Stephen Schwartz’s songs are definitely one of Wicked’s biggest strengths, from Elphaba’s now-iconic anthem “Defying Gravity”, to Galinda’s hilariously perky “Popular” and the blazingly defiant opening number, “No One Mourns the Wicked”. Ross has a sensationally powerful voice—which is needed to perform a role originally created on Idina Menzel—and Woolf is no different, her operatic stylings ideally suited to Glinda’s angelic persona.
No hit musical is complete without stunning visuals, and Wicked certainly delivers here. This Oz has a steampunk aesthetic, from Susan Hilferty’s ruffled and corseted costumes to the cogs, levers and giant mechanical dragon of Eugene Lee’s set. Even the curtain—a detailed ink map of Oz, with a glittering Emerald City at its heart—deserves attention.
What strikes me the most about seeing Wicked in 2018, however, is how relevant it is today. The Wizard—a revered and powerful leader—is actually a powerless mortal, relying on illusion, military force and spin doctors to get by. His comments about the truth—not facts or reason, but something everyone agrees on—feel particularly close to the bone, as does his persecution and silencing of animals that can talk. You might go to musical theatre for escapism, but there’s so much here that seems like a deliberate reference to fake news or stormy politics.
Wicked is a unique and remarkable show that simultaneously pays homage to the original source material and firmly puts its own stamp on the story. It’s funny, it’s moving and it’s dazzlingly entertaining—so follow the yellow brick road to the Palace box office and get yourself a ticket while you can.