Michael Cross

Review: Wicked @ Sunderland Empire “the show felt more intimate and there was a sense of closeness between the actors and the audience”

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Emily and Ashleigh as Glinda and Elphaba

Emily and Ashleigh as Glinda and Elphaba

Wicked has finally flown into Sunderland’s Empire Theatre for a three-week run, telling the tale of what happened before Dorothy Gale blew into the fairytale land of Oz.

Surprisingly the show scales exceptionally well from its West End sister show, with a full size Clock Dragon above centre stage. Granted the Sunderland Empire stage is smaller than that of London’s Apollo Victoria, but the show felt more intimate and there was a sense of closeness between the actors and the audience, like they could see you and you weren’t lost in a crowd of people.

For those that don’t know, the story of Wicked follows the friendship and love between lead characters Glinda and Elphaba, an unlikely union if ever there was one. One, a blonde obsessed with being popular and all things pink, the other forthright and well, green.

Ashleigh Gray who plays Elphaba shone a new light on the character. Her rendition of I’m Not That Girl was exceptional – she brought new life to the original soundtrack, which is something I never thought I’d say being such a big fan of Idina Menzel’s version.

The chemistry between Ashleigh Gray and Emily Tierney, who plays Glinda, was incredibly infectious. They are without a doubt the best duo I have seen in the five times I’ve seen the show.

But it wasn’t just Ashleigh Gray and Emily Tierney who were exceptional, the other actors, portraying the likes of Boq (Richard Vincent) and Nessarose (Carina Gillespie), captured the roles perfectly, making  the production faultless.

One thing every Wicked fan anticipates is the Defying Gravity performance, and this didn’t disappoint. The atmosphere in the Empire became palpable and the rusting of packets and sipping of drinks stopped, as Elphaba and Glinda developed their own sense of self and commanded the presence of the audience for the duration of the number, with the audience giving a rapturous applause as the first half drew to a close.

Even though the first half of the show was exceptional, the second half took it to a new level.

Everything from the Wizard of Oz finally clicks into place and you realise not everything is as it seems. The common perceptions from the Wizard of Oz are twisted on their head as the characters become a lot darker and more emotionally involved with each other.

But it’s not just the story and the characters you become captivated by, it’s the costumes and attention to the details, drawing inspirations from Steampunk and Victoriana. The set revolves around clock parts, with a clock face at the rear of the stage showing the 13th hour of the Wicked Witch’s death. The lighting projects cog parts on to the actors and stage, adding to the time aspect of the play.

The musical is big but the venue makes it feel intimate, like each of the actors are singing directly to you, drawing you in with the emotional numbers such as For Good – a song about friendship and the effect each leading character has had on each other.

Wicked is a play that says it’s ok to stand up for what you believe in even if no one else will stand up with you. It is a play of friendship that is tested to its greatest extent. It is a play that will make you cry, laugh and make you realise how cleverly it intertwines with The Wizard Of Oz. Despite reservations about seeing Wicked on a smaller stage, the show fits perfectly into the Empire’s surroundings without compromising anything.

Above all Wicked is a play that proves that friendships can occur from the unlikeliest of unions, and it will make you ask the question – are people merely born wicked or do they have wickedness thrust upon them? That’s something you will have to decide for yourself.

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