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Published 17 April 2008

How did the Wicked Witch of the West – frightener of small children, thrower of fireballs and the scariest film baddie of all time – get so evil? All is explained in new musical Wicked, which, having set records on Broadway, opened at the Apollo Victoria last night. Matthew Amer forced his way past the eager crowds surrounding the theatre to attend the press night.

Few Broadway transfers have arrived in the West End with as much pomp and expectation as Wicked. Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, which in turn takes its starting point from L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, we meet Elphaba – for that is the Wicked Witch’s real name – before she gets all cackley and unpleasant.

Her real problem is that she is green; it’s not normal, even in a magical land where animals talk. Her father despises her, her peers don’t accept her; she is the classic overachieving teenage outsider and she’s off to college. Here she meets the far more popular, yet rather less intelligent Galinda – soon to be Glinda, the Good Witch of the North – who, after mocking like the rest, befriends the green girl.

Elphaba – ‘Elphie’ to Galinda – turns into a young, green reactionary, fighting for the rights of animals. Unfortunately, this brings her into conflict with a much higher authority than she thinks, and flattens her childhood ambition. It doesn’t help that every time she tries to do something good, it goes slightly wrong.

Winnie Holzman’s book is littered with references to the original novel – each one receiving applause and laughter last night – that lend further enlightenment as to how Oz got to where it was when Dorothy first arrived, yet also poses a few questions. The Oz of Wicked is peopled by citizens dressed like Dickensian inhabitants of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, who are easily turned one way or another by clever spin. The Emerald City, of course, houses the classier citizens with a penchant for green.

Idina Menzel shows why the producers brought her over from America to reprise the central role of Elphaba in this production, her powerful yet effortless vocal talents raising many a whoop in the first night audience. Helen Dallimore, also making her West End debut, is a fine foil for Menzel during their duets and endows Glinda with an endearing Sloane-y dappiness that thrives during the chirpy ‘Galindafication’ song ‘Popular’.

Miriam Margolyes is almost unrecognisable, and almost steals the show, as press secretary with a dark side Madame Morrible, Nigel Planer oozes Barnum-esque bravado as the impotent Wizard and Adam Garcia remains casually laid back while wearing tight white breeches as love interest Fiyero.

Wicked is nothing if not a spectacle. With a mechanical dragon looming above the stage, terrifying flying monkeys climbing the set and bubbles aplenty for Glinda’s entrance, it would satisfy the most event-hungry theatre enthusiast, but the first act finale tops it all, and brought the house down… which, I imagine, was fairly scary for the Wicked Witch of the East.



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