On…Wicked (musical)

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I know I said I wouldn’t be updating during this week but having had some spare time, I’ve managed to write up this slightly shorter blog entry about Wicked. Warning now, there are spoilers in this post!

Last year, I had the chance to see Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre with my roommate on cheap tickets as part of a ‘Get into London theatres’ promotion, which runs in January to try and fill up seats during the unpopular theatre season. So, I took that chance and I remember, I was dazzled by the comedy and the showmanship and overall, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. As it turns out, this year, I got the opportunity to go again as part of my work (I know, what a great job I have!) and I was so eager to watch it again. Once again, I enjoyed it, but I think on second viewings, you can take a much more objective look at a piece of entertainment and really analyse it and think about it, without the initial awe-value in place. Of course, there’s something to be said about the first time you watch something, and there is something special about the feelings that might invoke. But honestly, although I was astounded the first time by all its wit and comedy, the second time, I found it rather disappointing. You see, Wicked is a musical that I think is enjoyable but just not objectively very good. Its strongest point is the witty script and some of the darker themes which are hinted at, but these are overshadowed by its very pantomime-like performance, its dull and melodramatic musical score, the rather underwhelming choreography, the cheesy plot and the tacky stage set.

For those not in the know, Wicked is based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Macguire, which takes the story from The Wizard of Oz but twists it to give it a different spin. It focuses on the back story of The Wicked Witch of the West (Louise Dearman), turning her from a demonic, evil character into a sympathetic freedom fighter. The trope of examining a story from an unseen angle is a very powerful one, and used in Wicked, it provides heaps of comedy and clever references to The Wizard of Oz itself. Plus, the story has plenty to stand on in its own right. The story of an outcast, Elphaba, who due to her green skin is bullied, must resonate with most people. By contrast, Galinda (or Glinda, by the end of the musical), is your typical blonde haired popular air-headed and ditzy girl (played by Gina Beck), who is forced into an uneasy relationship with Elphaba. The two cannot stand each other at first, when they are put in the same room at the boarding school Shiz. But, rather predictably, after much teasing, Glinda suddenly finds her heart and realises her bullying has gone too far. There’s also a half-assed love triangle thrown in for good measure (and to get the teenage girls swooning, I suspect) between Glinda, Elphaba and a handsome prince Fiyero (played by Ben Freeman) who is not as shallow as he first seems.

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Furthermore, there is an insidious undercurrent to the perky lives of our characters, as it seems things in Oz are not as perfect as it seems. Animals across Oz are losing the ability to speak, and they are being persecuted for being animals. One of the shocking moments is when a goat professor flips his blackboard to reveal the message: Animals should be seen and not heard. All written in ominous red. It is a powerful moment, matched by the only truly silent part of the musical. Elphaba sympathises with her goat professor, no doubt because of her own feelings of alienation and exclusion from others. This is by far the cleverest bits of the story, for the allegories to an authoritarian eugenics-fuelled regime is a horror that feels incredibly relevant. Animals are clearly a stand-in for any kind of ‘other’, any minority which gets scape-goated and blamed for societal ills; its handling of this rather contemporary way of thinking is sophisticated.

I can’t deny that the story itself is rather clever, although I think it falls apart towards the end. Unfortunately, the grand moral theme of discrimination gets overshadowed by the more shallow themes of sisterhood (between Glinda and Elphaba) and romance (between Elphaba and the prince). I would have loved to see more of the activism side of the story. Unfortunately, Elphaba towards the end just seems totally crazy, much less of the valiant, idealistic activist fighting for a cause she believes in, and much more just the attention-seeking type of activist. You know, the kind who throws paint onto people wearing furs, whilst not actually doing much to help animals or stopping the fur trade at all. By the last act, Elphaba morphs from a sympathetic freedom fighter to a stupid, bull-headed lovestruck idiot who seems so hellbent on her crusade that she forgets the sort of person she’s supposed to be. If Wicked is supposed to subvert our expectations of the Wicked Witch of the West, it fails in this regard.

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Moreover, even one of the show’s strengths – its references to The Wizard of Oz – is sub-par. The pacing just feels wrong in the last act when the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow all have to be shoe-horned in. The flying monkeys is about the only Wizard of Oz reference which feels satisfyingly resolved, whereas the others seem like unnecessary additions rather than clever alludes. One of the most disappointing moments is not having a reveal of the lion, as he is only shown as behind curtains and a terrible sound effect is played in his stead. The scarecrow character does not make much sense, as I don’t understand how he could end up without a brain due to Elphaba’s spell.

However, the biggest problem is just the soppy moments in the musical, which are of course accompanied by bellowing, melodramatic ballads, all of which last too long and just feel clumsy. The lyrics are just an awful fit for the rather mediocre soundtrack (I thought the soundtrack felt very fake and tinny, as if they used a cheap electric piano rather than a proper one). Even the most famous number, Defying Gravity, was hard to enjoy due to the word ‘gravity’ being out of time at every possible moment. In fact, a lot of the songs are rather badly written to fit the soundtrack. The opening number, ‘No One Mourns the Wicked’ is dull and doesn’t carry enough oomph to really start the show, and the dancing is very generic. Gina Beck does start strong in this song, but her amazing voice is drowned out by the less amazing back-up singers and dancers who are completely generic. The costuming is nice though, and definitely shows off the whimsical nature of Oz. The other song I despised was ‘For Good’, which speaks to the theme of sisterhood but seems to come completely out of the blue and then seems contradicted by the characters non-singing actions immediately afterwards.

I did, however, enjoy a few songs. ‘Dancing Through Life’, though it feels a little shoehorned in, at least used a different musical style and was actually quite cleverly written. ‘I’m Not That Girl’ was suitably emotional and delivered powerfully by both Louise Dearman and then again in Gina Beck’s reprise. My favourite song though has to be ‘The Wizard and I’, a song which manages to squarely put you on the side of the green and angry Elphaba and really invoke feelings of sympathy and affection for our underdog. Louise Dearman absolutely steals the show with this firecracker of a song – if only the rest of the songs were of this quality!

But back to it being too soppy, the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda is exaggerated to the extent that it feels unbelievable. Again, it’s that very pantomime-ish style which seems to contradict the more sophisticated writing. The jokes are well delivered, and it does provide a good experience, but the overarching plot never feels that realistic. It’s supposed to be a tale of friendship in spite of adversity and differences, but it comes on too quickly and Glinda is too stereotypically airheaded to really allow for the kind of character development that we want to see. What’s worse is the love story, which due to the complete sidestepping of the Prince’s character, just seems entirely contrived and creates unnecessary drama. Plus, I think we’re supposed to sympathise with him because he’s in love with Elphaba, but one can’t help but wonder why he agreed to be with Glinda after Elphaba’s disappearance if he was still in love with another person? Even if it was for pretences and for their Ozian public image, Glinda seems to genuinely believe and love him, and he comes off as a dick for allowing her to believe that. I just cannot feel happy for Elphaba and the Prince’s relationship, because it just does not feel very substantial.

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Overall, the quality of Wicked is just inconsistent. It seems to have more lofty ambitions with its deeper themes of discrimination and propaganda, which get swept under the carpet in favour of a rather shallow story that doesn’t match its witty script. The music sounds a bit amateurish and underdeveloped, and it is accompanied by painfully boring dance numbers. I cannot remember a single dancing part which was memorable or distinctly unique. And I will quickly mention the set design which is underwhelming in all aspects. The mechanical dragon above the stage is supposed to be shocking and powerful looking but it comes off as cartoonish and irrelevant to the whole story. Again, not a single set which I felt in awe of.

Whilst it surely is entertaining, it just isn’t very good. Of course, most people won’t care and will just enjoy the sights and sounds, but as a reviewer, I have to balance the subjective with the objective. It seems to me, on balance, Wicked is something I would recommend as a one-off if you have the opportunity, but not as a must-see.

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