Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 10th July, 2014
Author Gregory Maguire’s prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a dark and sensuous novel, here translated to the stage by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book). It’s a fluffier affair that races through events but is not without its darker side. The inhabitants of Oz are shown to be easily swayed by colour prejudice and fear, like UKIP voters. Their propensity for scapegoating the evils of their society involves an actual goat who, like other animals must not be allowed to teach the children, and must be denied their voice. The show looks back at the rise of Nazi Germany but is also a rather chilling depiction of the current rise of the far right in Europe.
The story tells of Elphaba, a girl who soon learns it’s not easy being green, but despite that develops into an engaging character – we take her to our hearts even though we have been told from the get-go she is to become the Wicked Witch of the West, and we will have a right old ding-dong when she is dead at last. Elphaba gets into a loathing-at-first-sight relationship with perky, popular girl Glinda (Gah-linda!) when she enrols at Shiz University – a kind of Hogwarts, or Oz-warts, I suppose. The pair’s mutual hatred turns to respect and a lasting friendship that is touching to behold. As the standby Elphaba, Jemma Alexander gives a powerhouse of a performance, but it is Emily Tierney’s Glinda who delights and amuses in her every scene. She’s an airhead and hilariously so, but Elphaba brings out the best and the worst in her – this is as much her story as the green-skinned witch’s. As circumstances conspire against her and public opinion is manipulated by lies and propaganda, Elphaba becomes an outlaw and a figure of fear, Glinda too goes up in the world, even channelling Eva Peron on her way to becoming the ‘good’ fairy we recognise from the classic film.
It’s a spectacular presentation of a storybook world – the fairy-tale gothic of the sets and costume gives us a world that is like our own but not so. The humanity of the characters is recognisable and relatable, and the script cleverly includes in-jokes and references to the original source material. It’s also an origins story – we see how the friends of Dorothy get to be how they are, although Dorothy herself is marginalised. Holzman’s script is witty and fun – it’s a pity Schwarz’s score is patchy at best. The songs are hardly memorable – they serve a purpose within the plot as it unfolds with only the glimmer of an occasional refrain you might hum on the way out. The cast do their best to belt out the numbers and keep the energy levels high.
There is appealing support from George Ure as heartbroken Boq, and Liam Doyle as swaggering Prince Charming, Fiyero. Marilyn Cutts is strong as Madame Morrible, who looks like Barbara Cartland but has the cold black heart of Theresa May. Dale Rapley’s Wizard is the only one to speak in an American accent – the shyster from Kansas – in this very British-sounding production.
Unlike Maguire’s novel, it’s family fare – although there are some nasty moments. It’s more Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney. This grown-up fairy-tale has emotional and political resonance but above all it’s an enjoyable spectacle – it is so good to see shows of this scale and quality here in the Midlands.