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Review: Wicked at the Sunderland Empire, Sunderland

This pacy, imaginative sister story to The Wizard of Oz has a long run at the Empire this month

*****

The Empire has treated us to some marvellous musicals in the last few years, and action-packed Wicked is one of the best.

The audience clearly adored this tale of witches of the Wizard of Oz, infused with energy and excitement by director Joe Mantello and beautifully staged by Wayne Cilento.

The show opens asking the enduring question: Are people born wicked or does life make them that way? And so we meet baby Elphaba and learn how she become the cackling Wicked Witch of the West.

Because the story of Oz is so well known and the film so dear to many hearts we need no convincing of the fantastical plot.

It is a tribute to author Winnie Holzman that this parallel story fits seamlessly with L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz ... but the main thing is that it is all such enormous fun.

The show has pace, hilarity, quirkiness – with fun words like scandalacious and demandering liberally scattered - and songs that give you goosebumps.

Ashleigh Gray as Elphaba and Emily Tierney as Glinda “the Good” wow us with number after number. But songs like No Good Deed and I’m Not That Girl, penned by Stephen Schwartz, don’t just have a great tune but are very much part of the plot.

The interval comes after Defying Gravity, a climactic song which reminded me very much of Frozen’s Let It Go. There is a lot of girl power in this story too.

When swotty Elphie and airhead Galinda (as she is then) meet “at uni” it is hard to imagine how they will rub along, but like many of Wicked’s characters they grow and change - some literally! - and this is a huge part of the story’s attraction.

The dormitory makeover song, Popular, is Emily Tierney’s star turn. She is smug, snobby, babyish and Tigger-like, one minute preening preposterously and offering calm words of wisdom the next. I laughed a lot.

I must mention Marilyn Cutts as Madame Morrible. Having been lucky enough to see Wicked last year at London’s Apollo theatre, I preferred Marilyn’s clearly enunciated characterisation.

And you may recognise ex-Brookside star Stephen Pinder, who played Max Farnham, as the Wizard himself. He wasn’t trustworthy then either.

There is a steam-punk vibe in Oz, with the stage set like the layered workings of a clock, framing a cast clad in spectacular, boldly coloured, Victorian-inspired costumes with a twist. Glinda, however, maintains a Hollywood starlet look in keeping with her wide-eyed way and glamorous ambitions, while the lovely Elphaba wears what witches wear… and is green!

Wicked is at the Sunderland Empire until April 24. For tickets telephone 0844 871 3022 or see www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland

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