Since its opening on Broadway in October 2003, Wicked has broken box office records the world over, and quickly joined the likes of commercial blockbusters Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King in their ability to continue packing audiences in.
Aside from its enormous commercial success, it’s fair to credit Wicked with having introduced an entire new generation of theatregoers to musical theatre. Here in Australia, we’ve had two successful productions of Wicked that travelled the country between June 2008 and June 2015, and Australian audiences were similarly taken in by the twisted take on the Wizard of Oz, championing the notion that things aren’t always what they seem.
So it’s unsurprising to see Working Arts Productions’ Witches concept so warmly embraced by the Australian musical theatre community. The show brings together Helen Dallimore, Lucy Durack, Amanda Harrison and Jemma Rix, four of the country’s best female musical theatre performers, who’ve all played an integral role in fuelling the Wicked phenomenon in Australia, Asia and London. It’s also an occasion that reunites them with Kellie Dickerson, one of our most accomplished music directors, conductors and musicians. And then, adding to an already impressive line up, Ben Lewis was a recently announced addition to Witches, having returned especially for the occasion from London (where he’s taken the stage in various roles over the past four years).
The women and Lewis, under Dickerson’s musical direction, have come together to perform a range of songs not just from Wicked, but a wider repertoire that encompasses tracks connected to the concepts of witchcraft, magic and the supernatural. It’s a rare treat to have the full contingent of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra turning their talents to the task of performing favourites from the musical theatre cannon.
Following instrumental opener ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, from the Harry Potter film series, the four female leading women arrive on stage to perform ‘Come little children – Garden of magic’ from 1993’s Hocus Pocus. It’s an apt choice to begin proceedings, but something is slightly amiss. There are certainly nerves detectable, and sound levels are somewhat off, and those issues remain as the cast segues into a performance of Stephen Schwarz’s classic ‘Magic to do’ (side note: can we please have an Australian production of Diane Paulus’ magnificent 2013 Broadway revival of Pippin on our stages already?)
As the first act progresses, the issues appear to become sorted, and we see these remarkably talented performers begin to demonstrate the extent of their talents. The first standout moment of the evening comes in the form of Harrison’s and Rix’s duet on the Frozen-borne smash hit, ‘Let it go’, with the two women combining their vocal prowess with the rich sounds of the SSO to give the track the treatment it deserves.
Across the evening, Harrison (Australia’s original Elphaba) reminds audiences that she’s a vocal powerhouse. When songs call upon her to belt, Harrison makes it look effortless. But it’s her performance of David Shire’s ‘The story goes on’ from 1983 musical Baby during which her vocals truly soar. It’s a joy to hear her nail each of big note, particularly in the song’s final minute, and to see how naturally that calibre of vocal performance comes to Harrison. Let’s hope it’s not long before she’s back on stage again.
As both Elphaba and, more recently, Ghost’s Molly Jensen, Rix has also proven to Australian audiences her impressive vocal strength. Here, she consolidates what we all already know, most impressively in her performance of ‘Someone like you’ from Jekyll and Hyde (a show she was, in fact, all set to star in last year before its indefinite postponement. Here’s hoping Rix still has that opportunity one day!) Earlier, in a first act performance of ‘With you’, a moving piece from Ghost, Rix delivers an affecting vocal performance that provides one of the evening’s best low-key moments.
Over the past eight years, Australian audiences have come to know Durack from performances that show huge charisma and enormous likeability. And in Witches, there’s so much ‘Galinda’ that characterises Durack’s performance throughout the evening – and the audience couldn’t be happier (excuse the Wicked pun!) Whether it’s her charming duet with Lewis on Frozen’s ‘Love is an open door’ or contributions to the foursome’s sweet harmonies on ‘Pure imagination’, there’s so much in what Durack delivers that reminds audiences of her gorgeous, Helpmann-nominated performance as the ‘good’ witch. Her highlight comes in the form of ‘Princess’, penned by her close friend, composer Matthew Lee Robinson, for his musical revue, Sing on through tomorrow. It’s cleverly written and highly entertaining, and espouses the virtues of a Disney diet. It’s a delightful performance and, as a total contrast to Harrison’s belter that preceded it, is perfectly placed in the setlist and affords the ideal vehicle for Durack’s own standout moment.
Dallimore provides ample evidence of her substantial comedic talents, and her performance throughout Witches gives glimpses of her dry and sophisticated sense of humour. With her roots in theatre acting, her comfort in portraying character roles is evident when she takes on the challenge of Sondheim’s Last Midnight from Into the woods. Vocally on point, it’s a focused, assertive performance infused with the right amount of attitude to transform Dallimore momentarily from good witch to bad.
Ben Lewis, while described in advertising and promotional materials as a ‘special guest’, is very much a key player in Witches from the get-go. Lewis lends his outstanding baritone to several performances throughout the evening, at times giving even greater, appreciable depth to the women’s already well-rounded harmonies. Elsewhere, he’s a welcome addition to a genuinely inspired, melodramatic performance of Bonnie Tyler’s hit ‘Total eclipse of the heart’ – a song (much later) appropriated from an episode of American series The Vampire Diaries, from which it derives its thematic link to the evening. It’s a brilliant tongue-in-cheek decision from musical director, Kellie Dickerson, that gives the audience a rare opportunity to hear the 80s power ballad performed with the full force of a symphony orchestra.
And then, there’s Lewis’ solo performance of Till I hear you sing, a song he performed several hundred times as the phantom in 2012’s Australian production of Love Never Dies. Placed towards the end of the evening, Lewis’ rendition of arguably his signature tune is big, bold, and utterly flawless, and is easily one of the evening’s greatest highlights and it received a rapturous response from the audience.
But, unsurprisingly, the biggest responses of the evening are for the songs that catapulted Dallimore, Durack, Harrison and Rix to superstardom in the musical theatre world. A Wicked trilogy of ‘Popular’, ‘For good’ and ‘Defying Gravity’ provides audience members precisely the moments they came to experience. ‘Popular’ is wonderfully performed as a duet with Dallimore and Durack, ‘For good’ with two Glindas and three Elphabas (Lewis joining in on the ‘green’ part) is a poignant piece with the SSO, and ‘Defying Gravity’ sans hydraulics still manages to reach the heights to which it’s used to taking its devotees.
Perhaps, room should have been made for some extra Wicked cuts in the setlist. While the diversity of the songs on offer was generally well-received, it could be said that the genre that resounded most successfully with the audience was musical theatre and so contemplation of SSO-accompanied versions of ‘The Wizard and I’ and Wicked’s Act II showstopper ‘No good deed’ would have been worthwhile. That said, it’s hard to argue that a simple rendition of ‘Over the rainbow’ is anything other than an ideal way to wrap up the evening’s activities.
Witches is a reminder of why Australian audiences came to love Wicked and its principal characters (and the actors who played them) and to showcase the talents of five local performers, each of an ilk making them absolutely world-class. At a time when the industry is confronted with importing of international actors for local productions, special events that serve to highlight the tremendous talents of home-grown artists must surely be more than welcome. Let’s hope Witches marks the start of a trend.