DECKED out in 50 shades of sinister, sparkling green, the blockbuster musical Wicked rolls into the Playhouse with all the fanfare of a big, conventional music theatre success. The sets are spectacular, the stars are super-talented, and the 18 songs are often designed to wring the heart in classic Whitney Houston style, especially when Amy Ross – as our heroine Elphaba – is belting out her lonely determination in big, stirring ballads greeted with roars of applause.
Playhouse, Edinburgh ****
Yet for all that, Wicked is a radical piece of work, a big romantic musical whose emotional focus is the complicated, non-romantic friendship between two women; and whose main theme involves the pain of being different, and the price brave people pay for political dissent in times of brutal group-think.
Famously inspired by Frank L Baum’s legendary Wizard Of Oz, and based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked is a prequel that begins when the story’s two witches – the green-coloured Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch Of The West, and the gorgeous blonde high school princess who becomes Glinda The Good – meet as school room-mates.
Despite Elhpaba’s outcast status, the two eventually become firm friends; but when Elphaba discovers that her idolised Wizard Of Oz is an empty shell of a ruler, set on uniting the people by whipping up hate against Oz’s kindly talking animals, she finds the courage to rebel, while Glinda takes the path of least resistance.
The story that follows is brilliantly presented, in Joe Mantello’s lavish and hugely enjoyable touring production. The sets and costumes are spectacular and often beautiful; the 30-strong ensemble is brilliantly choreographed, and musical director Dave Rose leads a superb 14-strong band.
And above all, the show’s two central performances –from Amy Ross and Helen Woolf – rise brilliantly to the challenge of this complex story. Ross’s beautifully spoken and superbly sung Elphaba is a true 21st century heroine, almost shocked by the extent of her own magic, and by the strength of her determination to resist oppression; Woolf’s Glinda embodies the even more complex character of an over-privileged high school girl who gradually matures into a real female political leader, not flawless, but – thanks to Elphaba – better than some.
We can, if we like, read into this show many parallels with contemporary American politics, strong enough to match the 1930s messages of Baum’s much-loved original. Either way, though, it’s impossible not to revel in a great musical story brilliantly delivered; not only with spectacle and sparkle, but with rare intelligence and heart.
Until 6 June