Wales Millennium Centre
Wicked may seem for many to have been around forever. Certainly, given that it is based – albeit loosely and occasionally bafflingly – on the mythology of L. Frank Baum’s beloved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this is perhaps unsurprising. Even taking this into account, it certainly can feel that the musical has entered the public consciousness; perhaps through a mix of ubiquitous advertising, endless touring, and of course bombastic musical numbers that are undoubtedly greatly entertaining. It may therefore come as something of a shock then that this is the first time it has come to Cardiff, and indeed to Wales, at the Millennium Centre.
The central premise of the plot is that Elphaba, played with aplomb and confidence by Nikki Davis-Jones, otherwise known as the Wicked Witch of the West may not, in actual fact, be the villain of the kingdom of Oz that Baum would have you believe. This offers an interesting take on the old story and certainly beats the wildly misogynistic, not to mention tired, tradition of the ‘witch’ as a catch-all representation of all that is ‘wrong’ with women.
The opening act is troubling, almost pantomime at times. You thought the Wicked Witch of The West is, and always has been, the very personification of evil? Oh no she’s not! You always assumed that the Good Witch of The North was a straightforward conduit for good? Oh no she’s not (kind of)!
It is a musical, and very much aimed at the mainstream, so it would be foolish to expect subtlety – and subtle it is not. However, as it settles into its stride there is a good degree of evidence to suggest that subversion and satire, just like the Wizard, are lurking just beneath the surface. Whilst it would be a stretch to compare Wicked with, say, Team America: World Police, there is definitely an element of layering to the jokes. Parents, or indeed adults without children, will find reason to smirk to themselves at pop culture references and slightly more risqué one liners.
Wicked is, of course, a musical and it must be judged on its songs. As with the plot, the songs take a while to hit top form; some of the early efforts seem forced and occasionally even lacking in energy. This changes however and by the end of the first half we are in full flow: excellent vocals that are backed up with on point choreography and stage lighting.
The upturn in the songs towards the end of the first half and into the second is matched by a greater drive to the plot. This new found urgency is relentless and takes the audience, at times breathlessly, towards the finale. Had someone told me twenty minutes into Wicked that one of the main protagonists could be read as a metaphor for the ‘political leader as propaganda puppet figure’, I would have been astonished. I was pleasantly surprised, and must admit, engaged with the characters, by the end. I will need to see this again to make proper sense of it, though I imagine I will not have to wait overly long for it to return to Cardiff: the Millennium Centre was sold out for a reason.