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Theatre Review: Wicked @ Apollo Victoria, London

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Everyone knows L. Frank Baum's tale of Oz, with the little girl in the red shoes and her faithful dog Toto. The yellow brick road and her defeat of various wicked witches in the 1939 film classic gave everyone faith that there's simply 'no place like home', and good will always triumph over evil.

But there are two sides every story, and Wicked poses the impertinent question: 'Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?'

Since it's UK debut in autumn 2006, Wicked remains a captivating performance globally, already seen by 42 million worlwide and named 'Broadway's biggest blockbuster' by the New York Times.

Based on Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the award-winning musical has been given a Disney makeover. It certainly doesn't fail to enchant almost a decade on - the Apollo Victoria Theatre enjoyed a packed audience and many delighted laughs at the character quirks and Oz in-jokes.

Wicked focuses on the story of two archetypal young woman that meet at 'uni', as Glinda so charmingly calls it. Shiz university, though undoubtedly beautiful and historical, has a certain Hogwarts feel about it. A big magical castle set on a hillside, I'm almost surprised Daniel Radcliffe doesn't burst on stage to join in with the ribbon-twirling.

Opening with the somewhat intimidating 'No One Mourns The Wicked', with the chorus and Glinda the Good Witch (Savannah Stevenson) giving you some terrible vibes about the recently deceased Elphaba, so-called Wicked Witch Of The West, the cast immediately make use of the intricate scenery, which includes balconies to stand on and steps to dangle from. Glinda is as picture perfect as the movies, as sugar sweet as you expect her to be. But gasp! Is it true that you knew the Wicked Witch?

The two sorcery students, Elphaba (Jennifer DiNoia) and Glinda, end up roomies in an unexpected turn of events, and their loathing relationship blossoms into a deep and meaningful friendship you really didn't see coming. DiNoia brings years of experience to the role having played the 'green girl' (her words, not mine) on Broadway, and in Chicago, Seoul and Sydney. All this experience has made her comfortable in the role, and she oozed confidence on stage. Her American accent may have stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the largely British cast, but her voice was so powerful I was almost brought to tears during the iconic 'Defying Gravity'. Elphaba's dry wit and endearing modesty makes her a loveable character - not something you expect from somebody who ought to be so wicked.

GAAAARlinda, who becomes the beloved Glinda the Good Witch, is as sugary sweet as the 1939 original. The story of both her and Elphaba's past and present, and how they came to be on the silver screen, blends seamlessly in this performance, filling in many of the gaps you never realised were there. Clever crossovers, like where did the Wizard come from? How did the Wicked Witches' monkeys grow wings and why was she so creepily attached to them (FLY MY PRETTIES FLY)? Why was that cowardly lion so darn cowardly? The modern-day musical and nearly 80 year-old film work hand-in-hand. The audience are given an insight to Oz that makes you feel like a fly on a very weird wall.

The chemistry between Savannah and Jennifer was natural and warm, leading you to believe that not only were they firm friends on stage, united together to change Oz for the better, but I imagine there are a lot of laughs backstage as well. Rather than Prince Fiyero dominating the dynamics of their friendship, Wicked gives these two young female characters a very strong voice of their own.

Photo courtesy of Matt Crockett.

In my opinion, one of the greatest things about this performance of Wicked was the loving detail shown by Eugene Lee and Susan Hilferty in creating the sets and costumes. Residents of the Emerald City wear magnificently over-the-top costumes, which clearly inspired the citizens of the Capitol in the Hunger Games. Oversize circular glasses, wedding cake skirts, and skyscraper hairdos as the chorus sing and dance their way along the emerald streets.

The set, which seemed to evolve effortlessly from scene to scene, has to be seen to be believed. The map of Oz on the curtains as you wait for the musical to begin is a work of art all by itself.

Though Jeremy Taylor's leggings in his first appearance during 'Dancing Through Life' gave the audience a little more than they paid for, his portrayal of Fiyero leaves you with heart palpitations during his (family friendly, of course) steamy embraces with Elphaba in 'As Long As You're Mine'. You're almost ready to take up a pitchfork and get stuck in to save him during Elphaba's powerful rendition of 'No Good Deed'.

Applause needs to be given to some of the 'smaller' parts - though let's remember, there are no small parts, only small actors. Nessarose, Elphaba's sister, came across as a more subtle character. But Katie Rowley Jones, who played the role in the original cast at London's Apollo Victoria Theatre, packed a punch in the second act singing 'The Wicked Witch of The East'.

The entire production was a tremendous effort from all the cast, with monkeys and ribbon-twirling galore in the opening scenes to many fantastic supporting characters that made Shiz and pre-Dorothy Oz a rich, colourful experience that left me distraught when the curtains finally fell. Apparently they don't do encores at the theatre. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was not as sinister as you might have expected, despite the marvellous prop used to show off his huge golden head. The warm and fluffy demenour of Martyn Ellis is what you might expect from a gentleman that has Pumba from The Lion King on his resume.

Overall, the cast more than deserved a standing ovation for an energetic performance. It was a perfectly polished performance and an all-round impressive feat. A must-see if you've got some time to spare in London.

London Apollo Victoria Theatre's production of Wicked can be summarised in one word: flawless.

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