Review: Wicked, Sunderland Empire, until September 29
If you haven't got your ticket for Wicked yet you'll be green with envy at the people who have.
One of the most popular shows to have ever played at Sunderland Empire when it last toured here in 2015 has clicked its ruby heels to return to Wearside and it’s lost none of its West End sparkle.
The key to its bewitching spell? A cauldron-full of the power of friendship, a sprinkle of politics, plenty of spectacular sets and lashings of strong show tunes that tug on the heartstrings.
This is my sixth time watching Wicked and, unlike many musicals on the touring circuit, it’s one I could never tire of seeing. It’s the strength of the story that casts such a spell. Far from the dominant mushy love story of most musicals, this is a show with friendship at its heart as it spectacularly reimagines the background to L.Frank Baum’s beloved Wizard of Oz characters.
These are the pre-Dorothy days which look at why the cackling witch of the book, and famous 1939 film, became supposedly ‘Wicked’.
Donning the witch’s hat on this tour as Elphaba, the green-skinned heroine with a spiky personality and a heart of gold, is Amy Ross whose spectacular vocals soared on stage - quite literally. Amy strikes just the right chord as the misunderstood freedom fighter who roots for the rights of the underdog, or, in this case, talking animals who are being subjugated by the powers that be in Oz.
We get on that broomstick with her and go on a real journey of emotions, from her vulnerability and longing in I’m Not That Girl to her gutsy defiance in Defying Gravity, which is arguably the best ending to an Act One ever. I defy anyone to say otherwise.
At the other end of the colour spectrum is pretty-in-pink Glinda, played with perkiness by Helen Woolf. She’s sugary, but she has substance too as she forges a really touching friendship with ‘Elphy’. There’s a palpable bond in their scenes together, in numbers such as Dancing Through Life and Popular, as we see them blossom from foes to friends in a feat of vocal Olympics.
Glinda the Good also gets her show-stopper moment as she floats above the stage in a bubble dress made of tens of thousands of shimmering sequins. Indeed, the costumes in Wicked deserve their own name in lights too. From the terrifying flying monkeys who are the stuff of nightmares, to the lush hues of green, in every shade imaginable, which drench the stage as we enter the Emerald City, the lavish costumes and wigs are a real visual feast.
Our heroines are supported by a strong cast, with former Eastenders actor Aaron Sidwell as the foppish Fiyero who develops a conscience and a love for Elphaba.
Meanwhile, Steven Pinder evokes our sympathy as persecuted goat, Doctor Dillamond, and in act two our boos as the Wizard of Oz, who’s more wicked than you think.
As we reach the finale, we see glimmers of the original story’s characters, a lion’s tale here and a yapping Toto there, but forget what you know about The Wizard of Oz, you’re certainly not in Kansas anymore.