Theatre’s most colourful spectacle flies into Sunderland this spring. Katy Wheeler speaks to the cast who will bring Wicked to Wearside for its North East debut.
Wannabe leading ladies must be green with envy when they see Ashleigh Gray and Emily Tierney
The actresses are currently leaving audiences spellbound in two of modern theatre’s greatest female roles, as both friends and foes.
In the green corner, there’s Ashleigh as Elphaba, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West who’s shunned by her fellow sorcery students. In the pink corner, there’s perky Glinda the Good, the witch everyone wants to be.
The tour is whisking theatre-goers to the land of Oz to marvel at the untold story of characters from L Frank Baum’s classic children’ tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
You may think you know Oz, but this is what happens before Dorothy, the ruby slippers and the yellow brick road.
The award-winning show’s still going strong in London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre, but the touring version hasn’t lost any of that West End sparkle.
Ashleigh explains: “We have ten trucks on tour and we pack them with West End magic.
“There are shows I’ve been to see and thought ‘that’s not how I remember it in the West End’ but I say this with my hand on my heart, this touring production is 100 per cent the same as the West End. There’s no corner cut, there’s nothing missing, it’s as it would be in London. It’s transferred really well.”
Playing Elphaba – which involves around 35 minutes of extra make up a night to turn her face, neck and arms green – is a dream role for Ashleigh.
“I’m a fan of the show,” she said. “I saw it on Broadway ten years ago and was just blown away by it. And now I’m in it, it’s just as much fun to be in as it is to watch.
“The show is so special to people and it’s important to deliver that Wicked sparkle.”
The show is such a huge production, with large scale pieces suspended from the ceiling that create the grandeur of Oz, that it can only travel to the country’s largest of theatres.
Though the costumes are lavish and the sets spectacular, at the show’s heart is friendship and acceptance.
Ashleigh explains: “The great thing about Wicked is that we take this story that everyone knows of this wicked witch and we turn it on its head and show how she became wicked. She’s born with green skin and is shunned when she’s growing up, and she has this terrible relationship with her father. That strikes a chord with a lot of young people who maybe feel like they don’t fit in. You get letters from so many young people who feel like they can relate to Elphaba.
“A powerful message in our story is to be yourself, she sticks to her guns and is very feisty and determined.”
Under the hot lights of theatre, Ashleigh is evergreen throughout and a make up artist follows her around backstage to touch up her colour between scenes.
Attention to detail is key here and Elphaba’s show-stopping flying dress for toe-tapper track Defying Gravity has more than 40 yards of fabric, with the skirt alone taking three weeks to construct.
“The show won a Tony award for the costumes and I wish everyone could have a backstage tour to see them up close, especially the Emerald City costumes,” she said. “There are so many different shades of green, they are so beautiful and unique.
“I joined the ensemble cast in the West End in 2007 and I remember first ‘teching’ with the show and we were all bumping into each other because the dresses and costumes are so wide, they take some getting used to but it’s worth it to create the wonder of Oz.” Once the spell of theatre is cast and Ashleigh steps on to stage as Elphaba, she says it’s an honour to play the character.
“I think for any woman in musical theatre, the roles of Elphaba and Glinda are dream roles. I feel so fortunate to get to play her every day. I used to watch musical theatre as a kid and I used to feel something, I was affected by it. So for me it’s amazing to play a role that affects so many other people, she means something to them.”
Like Ashleigh, Emily has worked in the West End production of Wicked and worked her way up the ranks to become joint leading lady.
“I saw it when it first opened in London and I’d just started at drama school,” she recalls. “Watching Glinda and Elphaba, I really wanted to be them. There just isn’t another show like it.
“They’re such iconic parts, I remember watching and thinking ‘I want to be Glinda, that looks like so much fun’.”
Perhaps the most fun part of being Glinda is emerging in her flying bubble in a shimmering hand-crafted sequin dress, 100,000 sequins to be precise.
“Flying out in the bubble and looking out over thousands of people is an amazing feeling,” says Emily. “I’m clipped into it and everyone always asks if I’m scared, but you can’t fall out, it will hold two tonnes. We’ve done the West End show (as understudies) and seen other people play those roles, but you have to put your own stamp on it. It’s different with big American musicals where they have the same look around the world. I had guidance, but I have my own way of singing Popular, the way I hold the wand, the choreography.”
Samuel Edwards has the task of playing love interest Fiyero to the leading ladies.
He said: “You can’t do the same thing every night, it becomes stale to watch and stale to be in. So you find ways of exploring the characters within the parameters of the show.”
Though he starts the show with an air of arrogance and bravado, that’s soon melted away as Fiyero falls in love.
“It still gets me every night, being in Wicked. I feel lucky every day. It feels like you’re a rock star in a rock concert,” said Sam.
“I think part of its appeal is that these are characters people can relate to. You see young girls in the front row crying because they can see themselves in that character. The show’s not just a fancy pantomime, it’s got heart.”
•Wicked is at Sunderland Empire from March 31 to April 25. Tickets, priced from £20-£55, are available from Tel. 0844 871 3022 or www.atgtickets.com/sunderland.