'Wicked': Quintessential West End Glory
- OnStage West End Columnist
'Wicked', based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, is fast approaching its tenth anniversary. In preparation, a brilliant anniversary cast has been selected, including the phenomenal Rachel Tucker as Elphaba and the hugely talented Suzie Mathers as Glinda; the two leading ladies have some of the very best West End vocals that I've heard in recent or distant shows. I've seen 'Wicked' four times now, but I resisted writing one of my 'Lasting Impressions' reviews for my blog (AlwaysTimeForTheatre.wordpress.com) because it was announced that Rachel Tucker would be returning to the West End after a run on Broadway- so I knew I'd be going again! My last review was on 'Funny Girl'; a show which is brilliant in its selective approach to West End style. By comparison, 'Wicked' is the reverse; 100% West End glory, through and through...and through.
Let's start with music and lyrics. Stephen Schwartz is responsible for both and he has succeeded in bringing into being tunes for every facet of the human heart (well, almost, it seems!). The music, like the vocals which bring the beautiful lyrics to life, are very much the jewels in the crown of this show- with 'Defying Gravity' being an inspired selection for the closing of the first act. Tunes like 'Popular' are fun and playful while the vibrant and accosting contributions from the ensemble add oodles of atmosphere at just the right moments. Not only are the songs hugely catchy and memorable, they are gloriously entertaining; swelling and bopping in turn before channeling some true diva delivery for the well known and much loved Elphaba numbers. The music of 'Wicked' is an impressive, beautiful success, Mr. Schwartz.
The production is likewise a glowing example of West End grandeur. The set functions beautifully both as a spectacle backdrop and a functioning array of levels and appearing/ disappearing set pieces. With cogs and mechanical whirring visible throughout, we are openly invited to see the inner workings of Oz. The mechanical Wizard is surprisingly intimidating and is brilliantly constructed- there is a definite sense of West End-ian 'no expense spared' about him. Likewise, the dragon is a fantastic mechanical visual, with its ominous tendency to become animated just as things start to go downhill for Elphaba at an alarming pace; coupled with the smoke and soaring score, it's a master class in atmosphere. The clever mechanics enabling the visual masterpiece in the breath-stealing 'Defying Gravity' is one of the most winning aspects of this production; it's utterly West End in its drama and its ability to inspire total awe. The set for 'Wicked' provides great evidence of 'Wicked''s place as one of the most pure and unmistakably West End productions; it is a solid, quality, well-conceived and beautifully realised West End sight to see.
As for costumes, 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' retains the crown for 'most outlandish and mind boggling designs' yet 'Wicked' is very much a major contender. Glinda's gowns are positively Disney and are therefore, I assume, coveted by every little girl in attendance. Elphaba's final gown is famously intricate and beautiful- no simple little black dress there, for sure! The school garb is twee and stylised, allowing for Elphaba's more basic, hap-hazard version to stand out as much as her pretty green hue while Madame Morrible has some of the very best costumes; Joan Collins, circa 'Dynasty', eat your heart out! The costumes worn by the ensemble (who are masters of quick-changing) are fabulous, glorious and stunning all at once; definitely other worldly to fit the narrative but also incredibly classy- those costumes make me want to begin a career as a member of the 'Wicked' ensemble... Damn my utter lack of co-ordination and singing ability! Bravo Susan Hilferty, you are my costuming hero.
As for the cast...what can I say? I've never appreciated an ensemble more than I did for this show. I am of course aware of the many brilliant talents of ensembles, yet those in the 'Wicked' gang cannot be missed and will not be designated the back seats; they open the show with a gorgeous chorus of ominous claims, their voices are repeatedly called upon to adorn the narrative progress, they accompany the orchestra in accompanying the protagonists and they finish the show with such powerful force and thoroughly West-End-ian belting, that the ribs of the stall patrons positively vibrate with the sheer power of it. That's even before mentioning the fact that the one-line- each, awarded to certain members of the ensemble, are in and of themselves a millisecond of thorough-bred West End vocals...no wonder the sound of the chorus made my chest hurt. Top quality no matter how big the role; how very West End. Then of course I have to mention the slick and sublime choreography (James Lynn Abbott)- what's not to love about an ensemble as talented as this? Well done, 'Wicked' team, this show is a glittering example of how to make every single performer stand out for their moment of glory.
Elphaba. One of Musical Theatre's greatest characters and who better to play her than the longest running Elphaba, Rachel Tucker? To comment on Rachel Tucker's performance, I've set myself strict yet undivulged limits...wish me luck, dear reader.
Vocally, Rachel Tucker is an absolute show-stopper. What has come to be known as 'The Tucker Growl' amongst fans is now something that I wait with baited breath to hear...and she did it! It was, needless to say, very special. She's a belter alright, and yet she still sweetly caresses the more tender numbers and is every bit as skilled and talented in making her breathless, restrained lines as gripping as her big, magnificent moments. Tucker's Elphaba has the dead-pan comic moments completely under her spell, making her reactions in 'Popular' one of my favourite things to see in the show; equally, Tucker absolutely nails the inexperienced green girl at her first party scene- that dancing...oh, that dancing... Tucker takes you on Elphaba's journey in a way which makes you lose track of time and place; your focus is that roller coaster of ups and downs pummelling what is ultimately a very lovable character. Tucker is a highly evocative actress, a supremely talented vocalist and an all round stellar performer. Her performances of 'The Wizard and I' is uplifting, endearing and vocally flawless while 'I'm Not That Girl' and 'As Long as You're Mine' are touching and tear-jerking. In the same vein, her renditions of 'Defying Gravity' and 'No Good Deed' are phenomenal each and every time- I don't know how she manages that, but I remain in grateful awe after seeing it done four times in real life and countless times on YouTube (apologies- we fans are grateful for those recordings, even if they are cheeky!) So, did I stick to my self-restrictions, dear reader? No. Of course not!
I loved Louise Dearman's Glinda and she retains the title for 'most chaotically and exhaustingly (in the entertaining way) bouncy character in a musical'. That said, Suzie Mathers was fantastic- that girl has some powerful pipes, for sure! I'm astounded to find that 'Phantom' does not appear anywhere in her cast blurb, such is the glory and power of her voice. Her Glinda is surprisingly gritty at times, which I like- and I'm very much appreciative of her amazing range as well as her tear-jerkingly beautiful harmonies with one Ms. Tucker. Lauren James Ray was wonderful as Nessarose- very, very touching as the wheelchair bound sister desperate for connection; her rendition of 'We Deserve Each Other' was beautiful. Fiyero, played by Oliver Savile, had some impressive pipes. He was also charismatic, funny and bravely sporting possibly the tightest Fiyero costume that the West End has ever seen. Oliver Savile made a perfect Fiyero and I believed every bit of his torment as much as his cheek- 'Wicked' casting never fails, it seems.
My point is this: 'Wicked' is a 'belter' musical; in other words, it's a feast for the ears as well as the eyes; it's utterly, totally, thoroughly, quintessentially West End in both style and substance. It oozes quality and parades its cast like no other show; it gives folks like me lots and lots of musically-induced shivers which is, after all, one of the greatest things about musicals for musical lovers. What's so special is that every cast member has pipes and unlike in other shows, they really do get the opportunity to be heard-even if it is brief, it is a moment of real glory. The visuals are gripping and grand while the sounds are well and truly glorious. I can't think of any other show which is more West End from every angle, in every category; hop on a bus, train, plane or broomstick and get yourself to the Apollo Victoria London...and try to get there before the fabulous Ms. Tucker departs in January 2017!
You can get your tickets here: http://www.wickedthemusical.co.uk/london
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Rachel Tucker (Elphaba) Photo by Tristam Kenton.