Stephen Schwartz (music & lyrics), Winnie Holzman (book), Michael McCabe Palace Theatre, Manchester 04 December 2018 to 05 January 2019
Firmly up there in blockbuster musical territory, following 12 years in the West End and a previous hit tour, Wicked - the so-called untold story of the witches of Oz - returns to the Palace Theatre Manchester, where the first UK tour premiered in 2013.
There are only four musicals in London that have run for longer than Wicked (Les Mis, Phantom, Mamma Mia! and The Lion King) so it’s no surprise the show’s much-anticipated festive return to Manchester has seen strong ticket sales.
For the uninitiated (can’t be many surely?), Wicked is based on Gregory Maguire’s somewhat adult retelling of the Wizard of Oz, that spins the story we know on its head - revealing that the iconic green-skinned baddie of the tale was actually the heroine of proceedings.
Throw in a catchy pop score and witty lyrics from Stephen Schwartz (Godspell) and a book by Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life), and you have a show with genuine multi-generational appeal.
With The Wizard of Oz being a Christmas TV staple, it has a festive feel that was evident on press night at the Palace Theatre. So what of this version, and this cast?
Amy Ross is, well, simply spellbinding as misunderstood green girl Elphaba, and doesn’t put a note wrong. She’s more than just a big voice, however, meaning her Elphie is as strong on the acting front as the big riffs.
With every defiant jut of her chin, you see the long-time hurt she’s trying to keep hidden, heartbreakingly combined with a barely-there hope of fitting in, and she has great comic timing too.
The famous Act I closer, and the show’s most celebrated song, Defying Gravity, is glorious - “I actually stopped breathing during that” my first-timer companion said in the interval.
Never mind defying gravity, I defy anyone not to have goosebumps at this masterful theatrical moment - when vocals, acting, lighting and stagecraft combine in stunning fashion.
Helen Woolf shows poise and endearing comic delivery as Galinda and shares a touching chemistry with Ross. The pair’s version of the tear-jerking For Good is sublime - there were audible sniffs from all over the stalls. I particularly liked how Woolf showed a clear development from the giggly younger Galinda, compared to the the more mature version later in the story.
Obvious audience favourite Aaron Sidwell brought a laid-back, edgy vibe and good vocals to playboy prince Fieryo, his louche persona well suited to the character’s standout song and dance number, Dancing Through Life - one of Wicked’s best set pieces. The Palace Theatre however is a massive house, and I did wonder if some of the subtler elements of the character would reach those sitting up top.
The rest of the principal cast also put in fine turns - I particularly liked West End regular Kim Ismay’s haughtily-sinister Madam Morrible and Brookside’s Steven Pinder’s Wizard - his aw shucks everyman exterior not quite concealing shady ulterior motives. He made an impact in his short scenes as “token goat” Doctor Dillamond too.
Of course the other star of the show is the design - this is one musical that does not cheat the regions in terms of scaling down the production when it hits the road. Eugene Lee’s sparkling and striking sets, Susan Hilferty’s quirky steampunkesque costumes and Kenneth Posner’s atmospheric lighting design all helping to bring Oz alive to audiences.
As this is the final date of a lengthy tour, it was gratifying to see the production looking as shiny and new as ever - with the entire cast clearly giving their all. No slipping standards here.
So Wicked’s still got the West End wow factor, clearly, and is a lavish Christmas treat for Manchester. Get your tickets fast if you fancy it.