Maybe she didn’t melt after all… for ELPHABA HAS RETURNED! Following on from its Australian premiere in Melbourne in 2008, Wicked has finally come full circle and is back at The Regent Theatre. From the moment I heard the Original Broadway Cast recording I loved this musical.
I saw it three times during its first Melbourne run, and once on Broadway in late 2009. This month marked my fifth visit to Wicked in a six year period, which my friends seem to think makes me ‘obsessed’. Trust me, when it comes to Wicked, I don’t even come close to falling into the obsessed category. There are fans who have visited this show 100+ times and know this show so well they notice the tiniest variation in the ensemble cast’s movements. I don’t even stage door! I am hardly obsessed. But I do love it.
As a child I was a The Wizard of Oz fanatic. I watched Victor Fleming’s 1939 film countless times and told various people that my name was Dorothy. I burst into tears when my Mum corrected me. The Wicked Witch of The West always scared me and along with everyone else I relished at her ultimate downfall at the hands of Dorothy. In 1995, author Gregory Maguire added a new twist to the story, in his novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of The Wicked Witch of The West. Here he explored whether the witch was really wicked after all. His book was adapted into the musical, Wicked, which premiered on Broadway in 2003, with a book (script) by Winnie Holzman, and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. I’ve never finished the book (it’s rather difficult to read) but I adore what Schwartz and Holzman have created. Somewhat lighter than the book, Wicked still maintains the novel’s key themes, while also focusing on the friendship between the two witches.
Wicked has far greater depth than what many may expect. Unlike in The Wizard of Oz, where the audience happily embraces a one-dimensional villain who has no backstory whatsoever, Wicked challenges its audience to recognise the ways in which they have been manipulated to believe in the Witch’s inherent wickedness. Here she is humanised. She gets an actual name, Elphaba (Maguire’s dedication to author of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum – his initials make the sounds “El-Fe-Be”) and we bear witness to her insecurities as well as her passions. We see the ways in which The Wizard turns Oz against her, uniting a nation against a common enemy. The comparisons with present-day politics are evident. Furthermore, the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy is explored, culminating in my personal favourite number of the show, ‘No Good Deed’. Beyond the interesting question of “Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?”, one of the key themes of Wicked concerns the friendship between Elphaba and Galinda/Glinda. Polar opposites, their relationship begins as a rivalry, before developing into something stronger. Stephen Schwartz’s beautiful song ‘For Good’ sums up their relationship with the lyrics: “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better/But because I knew you/ I have been changed for good”. Perfection.
The cast of the current production more than match the Broadway standard (with the possible exception of The Original Broadway Cast because it’s hard to beat Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel AND Norbert Leo Butz who are all at the top of their field). Compared with the 2009 Broadway cast that I saw, this current cast are just as good, if not better. To be honest, I was initially disappointed when the casting was announced for the new Melbourne season, as I was hoping for fresh faces in the lead roles of Elphaba and Glinda, rather than a repeat of previous performers. Jemma Rix has been with the show since its Australian inception, starting off as the standby for Elphaba in Melbourne, before becoming Elphaba full time later on in the national tour. When I saw her stand in for Amanda Harrison back in 2008 I didn’t feel that she completely measured up. HOWEVER, I am pleased to say that I now have a newfound appreciation for Jemma Rix – she was absolutely sublime. Elphaba gets all the best songs – ‘The Wizard and I’, ‘No Good Deed’, and the show-stopping ‘Defying Gravity’. These songs require a killer belt and kill it she does. I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Jemma. You were a stellar casting choice. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I have always enjoyed Lucy Durack’s portrayal of Glinda (a.k.a. The Good Witch of The North). Despite my initial disappointment about not getting to see a newbie in the role, I must concede that she fits the role perfectly. She practically IS Glinda – or at least the good parts. She is charming and sweet and plays up the comedic element without overdoing it. Judging by the many clips on YouTube it seems there is a tendency for some actresses to try to ‘out-Galindify” all Glindas that have gone before by (sometimes literally) bending over backwards to make their performance even more over-the-top than the last. Lucy does an excellent job in finding just the right balance, and is likely one of the better Glindas the world has seen (The Great Chenoweth aside of course). Her voice did not seem 100% on the night that I went (which was a preview), however she is reportedly nursing an injury so full points for throwing herself around like she was the picture of health.
The supporting cast included some fresher faces, including Edward Grey as Boq who was just beautiful to watch and had a voice to match. Emily Cascarino put in a strong performance as Nessarose and for the first time I was quite invested in the Nessarose/Boq subplot. Steve Danielsen in his first big role as Fiyero still has some room to grow but the potential is definitely there. Reg Livermore was a perfect choice for The Wizard and certainly an improvement on previously cast Bert Newton. Maggie Kirkpatrick is once again playing Madame Morrible, however at this preview performance I had the pleasure of seeing Angela Lumicisi as her understudy. Although noticeably younger than what the role calls for, she was very convincing and showed no sign of being inexperienced in the role. Nathan Carter similarly convinced as a character older that himself in the role of Dr Dillamond. John O’Hara and Matt Holly were stand-outs in the ensemble – I always enjoy seeing them on the cast list for the many shows they’ve been involved in.
If you enjoy a good spectacle, Wicked offers plenty of bang for your buck. The costumes are some of the best I’ve ever seen on stage, from Elphaba’s Act 2 gown to Glinda’s bubble dress to each and every one of the Emerald City citizens. I love all that green! The sets are incredible and the effects will stun and amaze – the end of Act 1 is out of this world. A couple of cool effects from the 2008 production are missing due to staging limitations – there is no more monkey flying out into the audience and I was disappointed that Elphaba didn’t come out of the trap door for ‘No Good Deed’. It hardly matters though, because Wicked is still one of the great spectacles, surpassed only by The Lion King and King Kong in terms of sets and effects. Where Wicked differs however, is that there is absolutely no weak link. The score, the cast, the choreography, the sets, the costumes, the story – it has everything.
The score is one of my all-time favourites and it’s hard to pick a favourite song. Aside from Elphaba’s three big numbers and the beautiful ‘For Good’, there is the big opener ‘No One Mourns the Wicked’, the hilarious ‘Popular’, the light and entertaining ‘Dancing Through Life’, the upbeat ‘What is This Feeling’, the understated but moving ballad ‘I’m Not That Girl’, and the romantic duet ‘As Long as You’re Mine’ among others. Re-occurring musical motifs continue throughout the score and if you really pay attention you’ll notice just how clever they are. Do yourself a favour and give the Broadway cast recording a closer listen. And then listen to it again and again and again.
With ticket prices as high as they are today, some people can only afford one big show a year. If that’s the case, make the most of it and choose a musical that has EVERYTHING. If anything it will alter the way you view The Wizard of Oz. As it turns out, Dorothy was a bit of a pain in the arse. Elphaba reigns supreme.
Wicked is currently playing at The Regent Theatre in Melbourne