REVIEW: Does the popular musical live up to its Wicked name?

Wicked, BGE Theatre, Dublin

A ridiculous politician, high on bluster, tightens his grip on power by appealing to the worst prejudices of the populace, writes Ed Power.

His hair is silly but his rhetoric is potent –and he has a powerful aversion to women who know their minds.

Helen Woolf as Glinda. Pic: Matt Crockett

When Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz debuted Wicked on Broadway in 2003, little could they have predicted how strongly this fantastic, hyperactive and thumpingly allegorical Wizard Of Oz prequel would resonate a decade and a half later. Yet the contemporary parallels are undeniable as the new UK touring production clicks its ruby slippers and materialises at BGE Theatre for a seven week run.

The ridiculous politician is the not very wonderful Wizard of Oz. As the 1939 adaptation of the Frank L Baum novel communicated so iconically, he’s a small man taking refuge in a vainglorious image.

But he meets his match, and then some, in Amy Ross’s Elphaba. A green-skinned young woman raised an outcast, she is blessed with magical powers that eventually draw her into conflict with the despicable Wizard (Steven Pinder) and his demonisation of Oz’s talking animals.

She will of course become the cackling Wicked Witch of the West, who so famously menaced Dorothy and unleashed her flying monkeys in the Hollywood classic. Her airhead college roommate (Helen Woolf), meanwhile, is the younger manifestation of the Good Witch Glinda.

A previous cast performing Defying Gravity. Pic: Matt Crockett

As is the way with female relationships in teenage dramas, they start off despising one another but are soon best friends forever – albeit best friends torn by their mutual feelings for Fiyero (Aaron Sidwell), a fly boy terrified that someone might see the substance behind his shallow exterior.

Savaged by critics on its debut, Wicked has nonetheless become one of the great blockbuster musicals of the 21st century and it's obvious why it has struck a chord (it is reportedly particularly beloved by teenage girls).

It isn’t just the political overtones, widely perceived in 2003 as a dig at George W Bush (they really had no idea what was coming down the track). An underdog tale spiced with brimstone, Wicked frames Elphaba as the misunderstood heroine, mocked by her classmates at Hogwarts-esque Shiz university and then manipulated – but only a little – by the Wizard.

Clearly it isn’t easy being green but, taking on a role made famous by Frozen’s Idina Menzel, Ross plays Elphaba with just the right blend of vulnerability and Hermione-esque moxie (though the bespectacled future-witch is really the Harry Potter of the piece).

Every centimetre her match is Woolf as Glinda, a ditzy tornado who, to her eventual shame, is co-opted as the Wicked Witch’s mortal foe in the Wizard’s propaganda war.

Amy Ross as Elphaba. Pic: Matt Crockett

Wicked is ultimately a bubbling, broiling concoction, to which can be added flying monkeys, whooshing broomsticks and and lurching mechanical contraptions.

The biggest special effect of all, however, is Schwartz's music and lyrics: a gummy bear blitz of show-stoppers that soar and swoop like cousins once removed to Frozen’s Let It Go (the chorus to the Elphaba v Glinda dance-off What Is This Feeling? will be rattling around your cranium for weeks). It's a bit of a sprawl – and sometimes a syrupy mess. But the spell it casts is undeniable.

BGE Theatre Dublin until September 1


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