The story of Wicked originates from a 1995 book by Gregory Maguire and has been long revered among theatre fans. The London production, now in its sixth year in the West End, seems to be the one show that just about everyone has something good to say about. In reality, I can't believe that it took me quite so long to see it, especially as I have walked past the theatre so many times on my way in to London and also that there have regularly been prestigious and well thought of actors in the principal roles - next to many fantastic reviews I have heard from family, friends and also online.
I was initially disappointed to find out that Rachel Tucker would not be performing at this particular show. More than any other role and any other production, this is one where I was desperate - if I was honest - not to see an understudy, particularly as she leaves the cast in October.
Gemma Atkins as Elphaba was simply stunning. Normally just a member of the (extremely vast) ensemble, I was told beforehand that she hadn't performed the part for quite a while but it did not show whatsoever. The biggest compliment I can probably pay her is that her on-stage relationships with Matt Willis and Gina Beck were as if they performed together every night, not once every few months or so. The light and shade in her voice was incredible - she handled the subtleties of Elphaba's character very well and every word she sang carried such feeling and emotion. In particular I loved her take on The Wizard And I and the heartfelt, mellow I'm Not That Girl. As climaxes to first Acts go, Defying Gravity is probably the best I've ever seen. It is truly a spine-tingling moment as the pit ramp up the volume to match Elphaba's broom rising to the highest point of the stage, as she begins to take her stand against all that she perceives is wrong. Gemma's take on this iconic track was note-perfect and epitomised the rest of her performance. Regular visitors to the show around me said that she was just as good as Rachel, if not better. I would love to see her again and am thrilled she is staying on for another year - what a luxury to have someone like her as a first cover.
I thought Gina Beck as Glinda did a good job. I thoroughly enjoyed her characterisation of Glinda which must be such a fun part to play over and over again, and she has some fantastic one-liners which are delivered impeccably - with my particular favourite "it seems the artichoke is steamed!". Her performance in Popular in particular was hilarious and wonderfully sung. There's no doubt she has a fantastic voice but I felt a few of the moments in some of her songs weren't ideally suited to her range; indeed she seemed a little squeaky and strained throughout the first Act, in What Is This Feeling and One Short Day in particular. Equally, it could have just been a slight off show for her. That said, and as mentioned, her on-stage chemistry with Elphaba was entirely convincing and her range of entrances were spectacular.
As soon as I had booked, one of the things I was most immediately looking forward to was seeing how Matt Willis did as Fiyero. Having grown up with him featuring in my childhood on TV, on the radio and in magazines, it was great to see him finally in the flesh. He surpassed all my expectations, putting in an excellent acting display, being entirely unforced and natural. You could tell his voice is still quite 'poppy' but there was nothing wrong with it at all. Having confessed in interviews I've seen that he is not much of a dancer, I still loved his take on Dancing Through Life. He did not put a foot wrong throughout and also loved what he did in As Long As You're Mine with Gemma as Elphaba. Overall, I was very impressed and thought his body art also added something to his character.
Julie Legrand as Madame Morrible was everything she needed to be and more. Perfect characterisation and casting, wonderful make-up, excellent comic timing, and I just suspected from the start that Morrible was not quite what she seemed. Plus, she has a fantastic voice to top it all off.
The Wizard was played by recent addition to the cast Keith Bartlett. He was excellently cast and is an accomplished actor. Loved his strange accent and he brought across the caring side to the Wizard's character very well despite opposing our hero Elphaba's morals and ideals. That massive Wizard mask thing he operates is quite scary and amazingly loud! Also reminded me of some sort of mad TV-scientist from the mid-90's.
Elphaba's unfortunately disabled sister Nessarose is currently Lillie Flynn. I really felt the tragedy surrounding her character and that's testament to Lillie's acting from her chair. I found her explosions of emotion towards Elphaba convincing and her blissfully false connection with Boq very touching.
Adam Pettigrew as Boq made an excellent innocent, but annoying, munchkin. It's not too challenging a role vocally but he made it his own and blended well as mentioned above with Lillie as Nessa. Was also impressed by how quickly he managed to transform in to the tin man in the second Act - he has a wonderful walk!
Christopher Howell as Doctor Dillamond was actually one of my favourite characters in the whole show. I really felt for him throughout the first Act and he had no trouble conveying Dillamond's emotions through his mask. Again, a great voice too although I was sort of left wanting to hear a bit more (of course not his fault though). Would like to see his take on the Wizard as well.
The rest of the ensemble provide fantastic back-up to these main roles. Unfortunately due to the wonderful make-up and not knowing the cast well enough I can't comment on too many individual performances; however I did spot a wonderfully slick David Rudin a few times and Sean Parkins who made a lively Chistery. The sets, costumes, choreography and lighting were simply astonishing and all fitted perfectly, as we moved from Shiz to Oz and the Yellow Brick Road and back to the Emerald City. All completely different landscapes which you just had to admire. At times it seemed like there were hundreds of citizen or denizens or monkeys flying around but in reality it could have been no more than about twenty. Major props to the set and costume designer!
It is a show that I would revisit without a shadow of a doubt. I may well end up doing so before Rachel leaves on 27th October, along with most of the principal cast mentioned above. That is not to say the show will lose its appeal - the new cast will be equally as special I am sure and the wonderful messages carried throughout the show will surely continue to amaze and inspire theatre-goers for many years to come yet.
At this performance, the cast was:
Gemma Atkins (Elphaba), Gina Beck (Glinda), Matt Willis (Fiyero), Julie Legrand (Madame Morrible), Keith Bartlett (The Wizard), Lillie Flynn (Nessarose), Adam Pettigrew (Boq), Christopher Howell (Doctor Dillamond), Kieran Brown (Witch's Father), Soeli Parry (Witch's Mother), Jacqueline Hughes (Midwife), Sean Parkins (Chistery), with Ashley Andrews, Alex Louize Bird, Andrew Bryant, Sophie Carmen-Jones, Enobong Essien, Harry Francis, Chloe Hart, Robert Jones, Sophie Linder-Lee, Michelle Pentecost, David Rudin, Charlotte Scott, Lindsay Taylor, Sam Taylor and Oliver Watton as Monkeys, Students, Denizens of the Emerald City, Palace Guards and Other Citizens of Oz.
Also in the cast are Rachel Tucker, Nikki Davis-Jones, Chloe Taylor, Oliver Brenin, Nicholas Collier, Tania Mathurin, Paulo Teixeira, Hannah Toy and Matt Turner.