When it was announced last August that non-professional performance rights for Wicked would be made available in Australia, it was clear it was only a matter of time before theatre companies around the country put their hands up to demonstrate what can be accomplished in productions of the blockbuster musical created outside of the fully professional arena.
Last week, Sydney’s Packemin Productions, which adopts a pro-am theatre model, became the first company in NSW (and only the second in the country) to bring to the stage the musical that, in its 13 years of life, has generated for Universal Pictures over US$3 billion (A$3.96 billion) – a figure significantly greater than that achieved by any film Universal has ever made.
As a professional piece, Wicked is a big-budget show with lavish sets and costumes, both of which earned Tony Awards for their designers. Not only are its technical aspects noteworthy, but it’s a show that demands tremendous vocal prowess from the female performers tasked with leading its cast. Stephen Schwarz’s score is arguably one of the toughest sings for a vocalist in musical theatre.
With all of the challenges that come with packaging Wicked into a production that doesn’t enjoy the luxury of a multi-million dollar budget and a cast bursting with seasoned professional artists, it’s more than pleasing to be able to report that Packemin’s Wicked is a remarkable retelling of the tale of the Witches of Oz. In fact, it’s hard to conceive of a production of this show that could accomplish much more outside of the professional arena, particularly when it comes to the economies of size and scale.
Based on a book by American novelist Gregory Maguire, Wicked takes the story of The Wizard of Oz and asks audiences to reassess the character of its two witches, Glinda The Good (Mikayla Williams) and Elphaba – The Wicked Witch of the West (Ashleigh O’Brien), in the context of a series of events of which they weren’t previously apprised. Not only does it reveal that the two were once close friends at university, but it explains how the beloved scarecrow, tinman and cowardly lion characters came to find themselves in their own predicaments. It’s a story that reminds us that all is not always what it seems.
It’s fundamental to any production of Wicked to have strong leading women that have the ability to engage their audience in their plights, especially true of the role of Elphaba. In O’Brien, director Neil Gooding has found a sturdy anchor. Her portrayal of the maligned but headstrong and principled Elphaba is a winner from the get go. By the time she’s sung the last note of her first big number, ‘The Wizard and I’, her strong belt and beautiful timbre have convinced us she’s up to the tough demands of the role. And not just in this production, it should be said. The calibre of O’Brien’s performance is very much in line with what you’d expect from a principal actor in a professional production. She soars (both literally and vocally) on the show-stopping ‘Defying Gravity’ and shows no hint of breathlessness during the aerobic workout of ‘No Good Deed’ in Act II.
As Glinda, Williams similarly shines. Her sweet soprano vocals are consistently strong across the night, handling some challenging moments with relative ease. She’s particularly strong on Act II opener, ‘Thank Goodness’, as well as on the final duet, ‘For Good’. Acting the role, Williams’ Glinda is silly and endearing, but in the first half of Act I, there are also traces of ‘mean girl’ in her performance, and that absolutely works in the portrayal of the character, given her initial ambivalence towards Elphaba.
Professional actor Linden Furnell, most recently seen on stage in Rent at The Hayes Theatre, is the playboy prince, Fiyero, a role for which he proves to be a good fit. He looks the part, his acting certainly convinces and his vocals reach their peak in an excellent duet with O’Brien on ‘As long as you’re mine’. As Elphaba’s sister, Nessarose, Manon Gunderson-Briggs also demonstrates impressive pipes, while Monique Lewis Reynolds lends a strong presence with her portrayal of Madame Morrible. She’s appropriately sinister in her characterisation, persuasive as the underhanded headmistress who takes no prisoners.
And as the wizard of Oz, stage veteran Wayne Scott Kermond delivers. His wizard has more than an air of second-hand car salesman about him, and that’s perfect here, where he’s portraying a man who has a gift for convincing the masses he has far more to offer them than is actually the case.
Musically, a sizeable orchestra has been assembled, under the direction of Peter Hayward, to recreate Schwarz’s score to pack as much of a punch as is possible. For much of the show, everything sounds as it should, but there are times when it does feel that the players are racing ahead of the performers, an issue that should resolve as the run progresses.
Choreographically, Amy Campbell’s choices demonstrate a thoughtful effort to remain as faithful as possible to Wayne Cilento’s original Broadway choreography. But it’s a large ensemble and there are moments in the show that would benefit from further cleaning and tightening of some formations, in order to enhance the visual impact of those scenes.
On the design front, there’s much to praise. Chris White has designed a set of remarkable scale. There are more than a few nods in the design to Eugene Lee’s stunning rendering of Oz and nothing about this set feels anything less than professional. It moves on and off stage like clockwork and its scale never presents a challenge for the performers. There’s also some beautiful ornate artwork, particularly on the stage arches seen in the show’s opening and closing scenes.
Victoria Horne has shown painstaking attention to detail in endeavouring to create costumes that recapture the lush extravagance of Susan Hilferty’s stunning Tony Award-winning pieces. While there’s obviously some deviation, the efforts to replicate Hilferty’s Emerald City designs are especially noteworthy. Lighting the production, Sean Clarke has succeeded in creating a design that evokes atmosphere effectively and ensuring the high attention to detail in the onstage elements is not lost.
Since appearing on the scene in February 2011, Packemin has become a highly respected company in the Sydney theatre community, among amateur and professional artists alike, owing to the capacity it has demonstrated for the creation of quality musical theatre productions. What the company has achieved with Wicked will only serve to further reinforce that reputation.
Wicked plays at Riverside Theatres (Corner of Church and Market Streets, Parramatta) until 13 August. For more details and to purchase tickets, click here