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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Theatre review: Wicked is an absorbing evening

Do you feel like you’ve already seen Wicked? It seems to appear in every America’s Got Talent audition video, in teen paraphernalia, in internet memes and fan videos. Stephen Schwartz’s creation broke box office records, graced Broadway for a decade with more than 4,400 shows, and is the 11th longest-running musical there.  Such saturation may lead to cynicism, but this touring production of Wicked, currently playing the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, explains the hype.

Set in Oz, prior to Dorothy’s arrival, the musical is an origin story about the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda, the Good Witch. When we meet them, the Wicked Witch, Elphaba (Laurel Harris), is an ugly, green-skinned girl with a big heart and an even bigger magical talent and Glinda (Kara Lindsay) is a blonde, simpering twinkle of curls and beauty. It’s a story as old as The Wizard of Oz itself: the clash between the popular girl and the outcast until circumstances lead to an unusual friendship.

Lindsay clearly has fun playing the self-absorbed, adored Glinda with tongue-in-cheek humour that adds to the sharp script. It’s clear that both leads are Broadway-made with their voices are uplifting, clear and controlled even when belting out ballads.

But this isn’t all about friendship. At its heart, Wicked asks the questions we raise about all evil characters. How did they end up this way? Can we explain their behavior by looking at their past?

This musical’s answers are decidedly political, showing that the Wicked Witch was cruelly painted by history. Her title is the result of an effective propaganda campaign run by the malevolent and fascist Oz; in truth she is a kind, but misunderstood, animal rights activist who is raging against the system to stop further oppression.

Think Mean Girls meets 1984.

Such lefty-leanings can come under fire for being heavy handed and preachy with Stephen Schwartz as the musical equivalent of Aaron Sorkin, but big ideas and a penchant for the underdog are at the heart of the finest musicals (Les Mis, anyone?). The politics balance the more saccharine parts of the story and “Defying Gravity” really is compelling when it’s in the context of political revolution.

The costumes in the show are dazzling, with traditional Victorian garb getting a twist of magic realism. There’s public school uniforms, cut to odd angles; beautiful ball gowns with mad frizzy hair; frills and bustles and sparkles galore. The sets are simple but not mean-spirited, but it’s the stage effects that elevate the production – and many of the songs – including the prism lighting emanating from Elphaba during “Defying Gravity”, or her otherworldly glow in “No Good Deed”.

I went into the show with one eyebrow slightly raised. I left gushing about the talent of the two leads, and feeling uplifted by the positive – albeit reductionist – political message of the tale. Wicked’s cast, sets and talent make it an absorbing evening.

Wicked. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Winnie Holzman. Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire. Directed by Joe Mantello. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through June 29.  Visit or for tickets and information.

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