Theatre review: Wicked – cleverly turns the Land of Oz on its head

There’s something not quite right in the Land of Oz. But it is in this slightly off center view of the land of the Munchkins, coupled with some terrific performances by the women, which makes Wicked so enjoyable.

A revisionist re-telling of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel “The Wonderful World of Oz”, the musical takes great joy in bringing to life Gregory Maguire’s off-kilter view of Oz, based on his 1995 novel. In Maguire’s Oz, The Wicked Witch of the West becomes a misunderstood young woman whose wickedness is only conjured by others bent on progressing their own wicked agendas.

It is in this slightly askew version of something so familiar that gives Wicked the bulk of its power. Whether it is in the bubble-headed Glinda, the real reason for the flying monkeys or in discovering how the iconic ruby slippers are created, we are served recognizable fare along side a variety of unfamiliar sides. It is like visiting your favourite sushi restaurant only to find out overnight it has become a fusion of Japanese and Mexican cuisine.

Natalie Daradich as Glinda and Anne Brummel as Elphaba in the Broadway Across Canada presentation of Wicked.
Natalie Daradich as Glinda and Anne Brummel as Elphaba in the Broadway Across Canada presentation of Wicked.

The women of Wicked are indeed wickedly good. Leading the way is Anne Brummel’s Elphaba who easily captures the vulnerability and isolation of being different. Early on Brummel is able to show off both her acting prowess and her musical talents in a beautiful and heartfelt rendition of “The Wizard and I”. And in a show which, arguably, has a single memorable song, she absolutely nails the act one showstopper “Defying Gravity”.

Torontonian Natalie Daradich, proudly marking her first time in Canada with the show, deliciously milks every bit of manipulative blonde she can from her role as Glinda. Daradich fully embraces the notion that it is in the small details a fully believable character makes. Whether it was in teaching Elphaba to effectively flip her hair and giggle a la Elle Woods or in her Eva Peron address to the citizens of Emerald City, she managed to find depth in a character that could easily be one dimensional.

Of the supporting females, Michelle London effectively manages her transformation into the Wicked Witch of the East and Jody Gelb’s Madame Morrible is delightfully over-the-top.

Helping achieve its mega-musical status are some pretty impressive production values. Eugene Lee’s steampunkish set designs, the almost grotesquely exaggerated Victorian costumes from Susan Hilferty and Kenneth Posner’s wonderful lighting all work together and prove that just because you take a show on the road doesn’t mean you have to compromise on the production and technical elements.

As musicals go there has not been this much buzz amongst musical theatre aficionados since, dare I say it, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rise to prominence in the 80s with shows like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. But where Webber’s shows might be the amuse-bouche of musical theatre, Wicked is more of a whole meal.

Inventive, clever, unique and just plain fun, Wicked is wholly more satisfying than a lot of its predecessors.

4 Out of 5 Stars Wicked

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.  Book by Winnie Holzman.  Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire.  A Broadway Across Canada presentation.  On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through June 26, 2011.  Visit http://www.wickedthemusical.com for tickets and information.

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