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Review: Wicked at the Liverpool Empire *****

When Wicked landed in Liverpool for the first time a decade ago, the equivalent of one in seven of the city’s population came out to see it.

It was similarly successful on its return six years ago. And judging by the reaction to this latest visit – part of a 20th anniversary tour – it could well be on for a (witches) hat trick.

Deservedly so for the talented cast and creative team who deliver this pitch-perfect production.

Outside the Empire on the balmy June evening was a sea of blush, rose and fuchsia as nearby Pink fans queued for double deckers bound for Anfield.

Inside the Lime Street auditorium however, the most prevalent colour choice of the night among the audience in what was practically a full house was green, in solidarity with Wicked’s luminous heroine Elphaba - played by an equally luminous Laura Pick, reprising the role she previously performed to deserved praise in the West End.

Pick certainly delivers on the show’s biggest and best-known number, Defying Gravity on the Empire stage in the climax to the first half.

But she also navigates her character’s narrative arc with consummate skill, and she has a brilliant foil in Sarah O’Connor as Galinda (later Glinda the Good).

If Elphaba is necessarily earnest, O’Connor gets to have lashings of glorious fun as the self-absorbed, perky princess who craves popularity and approval, but also goes on her own ‘journey’ as events spiral out of her control.

They sit at the heart of a terrific cast which also includes Carl Man as an initially cocky (shades of Beauty and the Beast's Gaston) love interest Fiyero and Simeon Truby doubling up as Doctor Dillamond and the morally opaque Wizard.

Above: Laura Pick as Elphaba. Top: Pick with Sarah O'Connor as Glinda. Photos by Matt Crockett.

For the few still uninitiated, the show is based on Gregory Maguire’s ‘origin’ story Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and tells the ‘true’ backstory of the titular witch and her beatific counterpart Glinda the Good before (and partially concurrently with) Dorothy comes crashing into Munchkinland to wreak havoc.

Beginning at the end, with the reported demise of the ‘Wicked’ Witch cheered by the mob – composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz channelling his inner Sondheim (and a touch of Orff’s O Fortuna) in the dramatic opening No One Mourns the Wicked – the story then flashes back to the beginning to paint a very different picture of these well-known characters and make us reconsider our preconceptions.

While a Technicolor The Wizard of Oz is at home on the big screen, the sheer scale of Wicked – both in physical and storytelling terms – really needs the big stage. And fewer come bigger than the Empire’s.

It’s perfect for Eugene Lee’s colourful set, which is dominated by the clock of the red-eyed time dragon, while Susan Hilferty’s delightfully extravagant costumes really pop.

Above: Simeon Truby as Doctor Dillamond

Look beyond the sparkly spectacle however and you’ll find Wicked also offers plenty of food for thought and all sorts of conversations for the journey home. About right and wrong, about the importance of friendship, of not judging a book by its cover, and about being brave and standing up for what you believe in whatever the cost may be.

Maguire’s source material is also a political allegory about the danger of great power left unchecked, and where it can lead when that power is abused. How fragile democracy really is and how easily it can be lost. Or given away.

While Winnie Holtman’s stage adaptation certainly doesn’t labour the point, it’s not difficult to see the shadow of 1930s Germany in the suppression and ‘othering’ of Oz’s animal population and the propaganda spun to the wider population. And even the glowing encircled ‘Z’ which pops up all over the Emerald City has taken on a decidedly sinister air since the letter was adopted by invading Russian troops in Ukraine.

But whatever level you want to approach it on, one thing remains constant, and that’s that this touring production of Wicked is a wickedly good night out.


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