If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That, largely speaking, appears to be the mantra behind the London production of Broadway’s celebrated record-breaker “Wicked.” There have been tiny tweaks to Winnie Holzman’s book, but the only people likely to notice are the show’s devoted fans. Many were at opening night, screaming with happiness the moment the lights went down. But will this supremely American show make fans out of Brits not already in the know?
In terms of reception, history may repeat itself. This is, after all, a show that survived tepid reviews and went on to become Broadway’s No. 1 draw.
Initial London reviews are lackluster, ranging from dutiful nods toward the production to grumpy dismissals. There’s nothing London critics like less than being told they’re sitting down to a Broadway triumph: It leaves them nothing to discover for themselves. Opening-night factions attempting to whip up an atmosphere by yelling their approval only raise critical hackles further.
The principle change to the show is aural: not to Stephen Schwartz’s “American Idol”-ized score, which remains intact, but to the accents.
Message boards on theater Web sites have been enlivened by fans arguing over the virtues of the added English accents. Elphaba (Tony winner Idina Menzel, repeating her utterly committed perf) remains American, while Glinda is now English, or, rather, as English as Australian Helen Dallimore can get. Nigel Planer’s Wizard is American, while Miriam Margolyes’ stentorian Madame Morrible is English and don’t you forget it.
In reality, it makes little difference because the show’s storytelling has always been subsidiary to its power-balladeering. The overarching tone and concept remain robustly American in a politically correct celebration of difference beneath a heavy coating of universal appeal.
Visually, the show looks stronger than at the Gershwin because the proportions of the Apollo Victoria frame Eugene Lee’s set better. The stage is less wide, and the design elements beyond the proscenium arch are built even further out along the walls of the auditorium. That’s particularly useful in this, one of the U.K.’s largest houses. When Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out” played (and died) here in the spring, the building’s white walls made the atmosphere about as welcoming as an aircraft hangar. The “Wicked”-toned refurbishment — hint: it’s very green — is a notable success.
The same cannot quite be said of all the cast, who perform with more gusto than grace. Dallimore had some pitch problems at the top of the show. At its considerable best, her voice has real soprano power, but it lacks the almost comic “ping” of Kristin Chenoweth, who created the role. She is so outclassed by Menzel that when they take the curtain call together you could sense disappointment because, rightly, the audience wanted to scream for Elphaba alone.
Planer looks horribly lost in the underwritten role of the Wizard; while Adam Garcia’s Fiyero and James Gillan’s Boq are efficient, neither makes much impact. But every awards judge will likely put Margolyes’ magnificently ripe turn as Madam Morrible on top of their noms list for supporting performance in a musical.
London is snowed under with 19 tuners on the boards, with “Dirty Dancing,” “Cabaret,” “Caroline, or Change,” “Porgy and Bess” and “The Sound of Music” all opening in the next six weeks. Whatever the “Wicked” detractors may say — and, rumored healthy box office advances aside, there are plenty of them — in terms of musical spectacle, “The Lion King” is its only London rival.
The major sticking point is that Oz, let alone Gregory Maguire’s backstory novel, simply isn’t the cultural touchstone here that it is in the U.S. The movie of “The Wizard of Oz” is well loved, but L. Frank Baum’s books are little read. To succeed in the U.K., the producers are going to have to work hard to market the teen and family word of mouth that has made it such a well-branded property back home.