In the years since musicals dropped off radio playlists and album charts, Wicked was the first show to arrive to a public frenzy of interest and anticipation. Six years later, and now a worldwide cultural phenomenon, Wicked has returned to Melbourne sharper, tighter, funnier and wickeder than ever.
For a show that originally received mixed reviews and was passed over the Best Musical Tony Award, Wicked has been an incredible success story. Besides the melodious, soaring score by Stephen Schwartz, the secret surely lies in Winnie Holzman’s intricate book not only juggles and neatly resolves multiple threads, but is also imbued with her uncanny insight into the psychology of the teenage mind. Of the countless scores of 13-16 year old girls who continue to flock to Wicked, there must surely be an extraordinarily high proportion of them who have known the feeling of “I’m Not That Girl.”
Over and above the sentimental interest of the “Wizard of Oz” connection, the show resonates just as strongly as it did ten years ago. Origin stories, long a feature of comic book narratives, have arguably surged in popularity since the 2003 arrival of Wicked. Even with the Gulf crisis long past its peak, the political message of uniting the people by giving them a common enemy remains a staple of governments and media. Oz’s ban on animals talking, and the related fear and division it creates, quickly brings to mind present day Russia under Putin’s rule.
Schwartz’s score remains a cutting edge achievement in modern music theatre. He turns the traditional opening “I wish” song on its head by already giving us the twisted outcome in the prologue. In “The Wizard and I,” young Elphaba dreams of an Oz celebration in her name but we have already seen that celebration: it was for her death. Though later shows such as Legally Blonde and Billy Elliot have come close, “Dancing Through Life” remains an unmatched music theatre sequence in terms of combining all of the characters with song, dance, text, props and costumes in a way that hurtles the story forward. In this song, we meet Fiyero, and the love triangle between he and the two witches is born, Glinda gives Elphaba the iconic black pointed hat, Elphaba gives Madame Morrible a wand for Glinda so she can learn sorcery, Glinda finally understands Elphaba’s pain, and gains her trust and friendship when she salvages Elphaba’s dance efforts by making the moves appear cool. This much exposition would take pages of dialogue in a play.
This remounted staging is yet another example of the model that serves Australian theatregoers so well, giving us a fresh, enthusiastic, talent-filled production that is infinitely preferable to the endless runs of Broadway and London productions, which continue long past the initial interest and excitement have worn off. Better still, rather than being a slavish re-creation, this latest season boasts new director Lisa Leguillou, whose fresh eyes have enlivened and enhanced Joe Mantello’s original direction.
Some quibbles endure, such as the very obvious Tin Man swap behind Nessarose’s wardrobe, and the completely random appearance of Doctor Dillamond under a blanket on the floor in the Wizard’s chamber, but they are easily brushed aside in the overall brilliance on display.
No need to tinker with Eugene Lee’s epic settings or Susan Hilferty’s supremely inventive costumes. Wicked remains one of the very few shows whose scale is a successful fit for the cavernous Regent Theatre. The dragon clock and various cogs and mechanicals are as impressively wondrous as ever, especially when enhanced by Kenneth Posner’s gorgeous lighting, which has been improved by the multi-coloured pinpoint streams that have come with the advent of LEDs in stage lights. As with all the creative elements, Hilferty’s costumes play an integral role in the story telling, creating a world without straight lines, where the fashion is as unique as the Ozified lingo.
Jemma Rix’s extraordinary talent, along with the combination of her experience as Elphaba and Leguillou’s new direction, created several moments for me last night in which, even on my fourteenth viewing, I saw and heard and understood lines of dialogue and aspects of motivation for the first time. Rix is able to make even the very well known “Defying Gravity” sound fresh and original. Her massive voice soars not only on this expected highpoint at the close of act one, but also as she belts out the final phrases of act two’s “No Good Deed.” With an intense beauty that shines right through the green make up, Rix commands the stage with magnetism to spare.
Despite seven Production Company lead roles to her name, Lucy Durack arrived on stage in Glinda’s bubble six years ago a relative unknown. In the interim, she has not only raised her profile to become one of the leading ladies of the Australian stage, but has polished her talents to become a truly delightful comedienne. Completely at home on the stage, and with her high soprano notes sounding pure and effortless, Durack sparkles in the role she was born to play.
A pair of newly minted leading men stand out in roles that originally went to tv “names.” Triple threat Steve Danielsen is a sensational Fiyero, underpinning the playboy prince’s flashy bravado with a vulnerable tenderness that makes sparks fly in his romantic scenes with Rix’s Elphaba. Fresh-faced relative newcomer Edward Grey uses his excellent acting skills to engage audience empathy for lovelorn munchkin Boq. Also demonstrating a lovely singing voice, Grey elevates the somewhat minor role by conveying a clear and involving arc for Boq.
Seasoned actress Maggie Kirkpatrick returns as the malevolent Madame Morrible, delivering the deliciously dastardly role with palpable relish. Legendary stage actor Reg Livermore is a welcome addition to the cast as The Wizard. Known for outlandish characterisations, Livermore plays it straight here, his expressive singing voice and finely honed acting skills in excellent form.
Strong support comes from Emily Cascarino as the self-pitying Nessarose, and John O’Hara in the brief but vital cameo role of Elphaba’s beleaguered father. Nathan Carter effectively conveys old goat Doctor Dillamond’s humanity from under the large mask, a feat also managed by Matt Holly as tortured monkey Chistery.
Wicked needs no help from this or any other reviewer. Established fans should hold no doubt that it is well worth seeing again. Newcomers should prepare to be blown away.
Photos: Jeff Busby