Wicked is one of those ridiculously popular Broadway and West End musicals, and it made its way to Australia last year. Just yesterday it opened in Sydney, the second tier musical town in Australia (as far as I can tell, there are no tiers after that). I caught the matinee Sunday performance, and it was amazing even in day time.
Wicked is what happens when you take strong, resonant source material – both Gregory Maguire’s book and the Wizard of Oz itself – set it to music, and then have it performed by a strong cast and, uh … Bert Newton.
A great show all around and a great production, Wicked is definitely something that should be seen if you like musicals. If you don’t, there’s probably no helping you.
Wicked tells the story of the younger days of Elphaba – the “Wicked Witch of the West” of The Wizard of Oz fame – and her relationship with the good witch Glinda. Things change for the justifiably embittered Elphaba when she discovers sorcery, friendship and love, but she is destined for wickedness.
Wicked is light hearted fantasy but at the same time it’s an exercise in propaganda and political spin. One could say that the entire production is just propaganda extolling the virtues of Elphaba, because she does come across rather sympathetically, but everything presented here can conceivably fit with the movie (I am uncertain about the Oz book, save for the fact that the ruby slippers are here there original silver). It’s easy to make political comparisons, and the program notes that the book was written around the time of the first Gulf War. The fact that a story that is on at least one level about the ethics of flying monkeys retains political cache to this day says more about the constants of politics than it does about the content of the show itself. It’s a nice and comfortable parallel and all the more believable for it – although comparing Glinda to Sarah Palin isn’t exactly accurate or helpful: she’s one of the good guys.
Political allegory is not where Wicked focuses most of its energy, though: the lynchpin of the exercise is the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda. Glinda begins as Galinda, an insufferable, albeit hilarious, blonde who seems modelled after the likes of Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods, but both of them reveal a sensitivity that neither believed they could have possessed. The theme of deceptive appearances and function following form are never exactly subtle here, but they are explored more than satisfactorily: in a way, I came to love Elphaba and Glinda, genuinely investing myself in their drama.
The story itself is good, although the animal censorship bit seems a little tacked on to give Elphaba a cause to dedicate herself to – at least in this incarnation. The passage of time is also handled somewhat confusingly (when, for instance, did Glinda actually learn magic?). Thematically, however, and character wise, the show is damned near perfect – and the second act is actually ridiculously strong, handily defeating a common curse.
The interesting thing about Wicked is that, while the songs are fairly amazing, they don’t stand up that well outside of the context of the show. The cast recording, featuring the amazing Idina Menzel and the “born-to-play-Glinda” Kristin Chenoweth is performed and orchestrated strongly, but the show is a production, and it loses something in the translation. More than half of the show is dialogue as opposed to song, and it’s not something where you can divine the story simply through listening to the recording (see: Chicago, Avenue Q and, ahem, Xanadu. Miss Saigon and the like are special because the recordings are pretty much the entire shows). All of the songs advance the plot – because, frankly, a song in a musical can be the equivalent of a montage – but they slot into a larger schematic and don’t work so well by themselves.
That is a strange relationship, and I may be forced to change my mind as I subject myself to repeat listenings of the material. The fact of the matter is that the songs on offer feature unexpected and unconventional rhymes. “Planned ‘em” and “Tandem” have never gone together so well, and “You don’t understand, you’re having delusions of grandeur” is a pleasant surprise.
The Sydney production is identical to the Melbourne production, and is impressive: if one wants endless spectacle in a musical, they’ve got it here. Contrast that to the excellent, deliberately threadbare Chicago that was recently put on at Lyric Theatre and you’ve got two very different but still entertaining shows. I’m not entirely sure of the aesthetic of the costumes of Emerald City, the denizens of whom look like eccentric homeless people, but everything is in line with the cinematic look save the silver slippers.
The two leads are brilliantly cast, with Jemma Rix technically an understudy for Amanda Harrison as Elphaba, but she’s been doing it so long and does it so well that you could hardly notice. She brings the right vulnerability and standoffishness to the character and she can certainly sing. Lucy Durack as Glinda, on the other hand, absolutely kills it. I was a bit worried about her trilling at the start but, as it turns out, she brings a marvellous sense of humour to the part (Glinda got almost all of the laughs from my audience), she’s got the dance and she’s got the sensitivity to play the more delicate parts of the second act. Durack’s “Popular” is something that I had always considered funny before I saw the show, but performed in person it becomes one of the pillars of the performance and turns a funny ditz into something that is fundamentally the same as it once was, but just that little bit deeper.
The role of Fiyero, the romantic interest, was today understudied by Michael Snell – and this was a good thing. The problem with the role of Fiyero is that it’s normally filled in by Rob “Millsy” Mills, an Australian Idol alum. It would have been very hard to take him seriously in this – or any other – role. It is no small blessing that the part of Boq is no longer played by Idol runner up Anthony Callea.
The other draw card of Wicked is Bert Newton as the Wizard, who stepped in to replace Rob Guest after his death last year. Newton is one of the mysteries of actors – in that he’s more of a trained comedian than an actor, and that his appearance on stage will lead to an automatic cheer from an audience (see also: The Producers, and similarly Magda Szjubanski’s inexplicable turn in Guys and Dolls). I’ve seen Newton as the Wizard before, in an old performance of The Wizard of Oz (starring Nikki Webster as Dorothy!), but this is a different sort of character and a different take on him. Newton is interesting, but he can’t maintain an accent and is easily overshadowed by Rix. His role is important and pivotal but not so much that Newton’s performance does not suffice.
Wicked is not the perfect show, but it is a surprisingly heartfelt story of friendship, love, betrayal and all of the best themes of literature and musicals. It is one of those shows that has picked up steam to the point that it will probably never stop playing internationally – it’s even been translated into Japanese! – and I really can’t recommend it more.
 It scares me that I didn’t have to look up the name of that character.