Thursday, 28 November 2013

Wicked Awesome?

I went to my first West End show at the weekend (is the Victoria Apollo in the West End? I've no idea!), which was also my first ever musical which I went to with BigHead (which, now I think about it, is really quite strange).

(Vague spoilers below)

Wicked, it turns out, is a somewhat qualified success. I mean, we all know this kind of thing is really all about the spectacle and the technological accomplishment, and this ticked both boxes with great looping ticks gouged into the paper with a sparkly pen. You'll believe a horribly-warped monkey can fly! You'll argue about how the Tin Man transformation is pulled off! The giant golden dragon wasn't too shabby either, though there weren't many seats in the auditorium where you could see both it and, you know, the stage.  The cast were almost uniformly excellent, the one exception being Sam Kelly as the wizard, who seemed a bit off his game (I'm not sure if his mumbling was because he was having trouble remembering lines, or just a voice issue, but a lot of his lyrics got lost along the way).

So in terms of how to put on the show as written, the Victoria Apollo did itself proud.  I'm rather less convinced by the writing itself.  The awesome/mediocre ratio for the songs is a little on the low side, maybe, and in true musical tradition the soundtrack (like so much else) is somewhat front-loaded, but that's not really the problem here.  The problem is the plot.

Yes, yes. Spectacle, cast, music (mainly) are all present and correct in this spectacular live musical.  Who the fuck cares about the plot?  Well, it seems Gregory Maguire did, certainly. One does not set oneself the task of weaving a new tale around a classic one in order to utterly invert the latter without actually contradicting it unless you're serious about doing it (which is not necessarily the same as being serious whilst doing it, of course).  This is a fantastic idea for which I have no shortage of respect, but while it may have worked perfectly in the original novel, here there are real problems.

In the first act - proposed title: "Why the Witch Became" - everything actually plays out very well as the schism between the Wicked Witch of the West (formerly Elphaba) and the Wizard of Oz (formerly Captain Hans Geering) is played out over a backdrop of civil rights violations and cynical realpolitik.  I'm always a fan of political manoeuvring set to music; why else would I adore Chess as much as I do?

The first act has the easy job, though, since it's set before Dorothy is captured by the twister that brings her to the Oz.  There's more or less a blank slate to work with.  When the second act opens just before Dorothy's entrance, things start to go wrong. The need of structure completely overwhelm those of narrative.  Major developments - most obviously the story of how Elphaba's sister becomes the Wicked Witch of the East, which comes across as an inexplicable heel-turn - are rushed to the point of absurdity, and the themes of the first act almost completely abandoned.  What started out as a genuinely interesting application of social politics to a fantasy setting previously utterly devoid of such complications has to jettison almost all of that so it can wend its entirely prosaic love story around the major plot markers of Baum's original.

It's not that the second act fails to be entertaining, just that it fails to live up to the promise of the first. Halfway through the show Elphaba has discarded her own success and happiness because she refuses to buy it at the cost of someone else.  By the end, she's exactly as self-obsessed and bitter as she's made out to be.  Just for very different reasons.

Still, one half triumph, one half entirely solid.  There are much worse things in the world to turn out to be.

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