Reigning masters of the non-professional premiere, CLOC Musical Theatre again works their magic, presenting a slick, spectacular, highly engaging production of über-hit Wicked.
Given the massive difference in budget between this staging and the juggernaut of the Broadway production, the achievements in production standard here are quite extraordinary. While many CLOC amateur premieres, such as The Phantom of the Opera and Mary Poppins, could be admired for their great accomplishments, the icing on the cake here is the quality of the performances. Music and choreography are excellent, and direction is especially strong.
While professional stagings have plenty of money for design and special effects, one aspect where they must be frugal is cast salaries. This company of Wicked is far larger than the franchised professional staging, and the combined effect of all those singers and dancers is very positive indeed. Musical director Danny Forward delivers thrilling chorus harmonies, and choreographer Lynette White fills the stage with varied layers of well-drilled dance.
Chris White’s set design brings the action forward and makes excellent use of the deep, wide apron of the National Theatre. Glinda’s bubble, the giant Wizard face and the overhead dragon are scaled down but very impressively constructed, and the various arches and balconies of the setting are sturdily and attractively realised. The only slight misfire is a projection of the house that has crash-landed in the cornfield, which is of a sketchy cartoon-like style that is at odds with the rest of the artwork.
Brad Alcock’s lighting design not only paints the air with streams of colour and dapples the stage in countless textured gobo effects, but also provides a myriad of gorgeous tiny green lights as decorative enhancement on the sets for Oz. In addition to light, Alcock also provides inky darkness to cover special effects. Elphaba’s climactic act one flight is terrifically impressive, although it is almost too well covered by downstage beams of light.
Once again, a massive part of the visual appeal is the stunning costume design of Victoria Horne. Broadway’s Wicked hosts weekly Behind the Emerald Curtain sessions where fans can look at design elements up close, and these costumes would more than stand up to that scrutiny. While retaining the general arc of the original costumes, Horne has shown all manner of inventive wit and flair in creating a stunning new set of costumes. Numerous highlights include the decadently glossy black sparkle of the mature Elphaba’s dress and Glinda’s crystal-studded pale blue fairy gown. Other highlights include Nessarose’s pale pink satin and lace gown for “Dancing Through Life,” and Glinda’s formal pale gold ensemble and her subsequent spun gold engagement gown.
Completing the distinctive look of the characters is a multitude of wigs designed by David Wisken. Wisken gives a strong indication of Glinda and Elphaba’s character development, giving Glinda a tightly coiffured look when she becomes a public figure and allowing Elphaba’s locks to grow when she drops out of society and goes into hiding.
All of this visual and musical appeal would be of little point without the beating heart of the story, so the assured confidence of co-directors Chris White and Lynette White is of supreme value to the production’s success. With the action placed well forward on the stage, nuances of plot and characters are crisp and clear, and even the laugh lines seem to land more successfully. Very good use is also made of the full width of the stage. White and White stage a different version of Wizomania, and use the ensemble to present a flashback during Glinda’s false account of the first meeting with the Wizard. Their boldest stroke, which gives a great boost to the mature vibe of act two, is the clear implication that Elphaba and Fiyero have just made love before singing “As Long As You’re Mine.”
In a well-matched pair of lead performances, Rosa McCarty and Emily McKenzie shine as Elphaba and Glinda.
McCarty brings out Elphaba’s compassion and consternation in act one, and then is even stronger as the mature Elphaba of act two. Whether it is playing Elphaba as arguing with her sister, sparring with Glinda or loving Fiyero, McCarty enjoys chemistry with all her co-stars, and the emotional intelligence of her performance adds plenty of depth and interest to her characterisation.
While Elphaba has the stronger character arc, McKenzie brings out plenty of detail as Glinda journeys from vainglorious brat to heavyhearted public figure. While McKenzie provides plenty of cute perkiness in act one, she is, like McCarty, at her best playing the more mature later version of the character. McKenzie has a lovely soprano that complements McCarty’s powerful belt to great effect.
Robbie Smith is a dashingly sexy Fiyero, singing the role with an effortlessly smoky charm and dancing up a storm when given the chance. Smith plays down the corniness of the role to chart the rise of a sincere young man from beneath the vapid prince’s superficial origins.
Hamish Anderson portrays the intense longing of the meek Boq and the unleashed anger when he is finally free. Grace Kingsford shows the rigidity of Nessarose’s anger and underlying self-loathing, and is very convincing when Nessarose finally has the chance to stand and walk. As with Elphaba, Glinda and Fiyero, the successful conveyance of the journeys of these characters is as much a credit to the strength of the actors as it is to the insight of the direction.
Highly experienced performer Carolyn Waddell brings lashings of class to the insidiously self-serving Madame Morrible. Waddell has a plummy polish to her speaking voice, and demonstrates the quality of her acting in scenes such as the top of act two, in which Madame Morrible is clearly the puppet master behind the public’s ludicrous rumours about the fearsome Elphaba.
Fellow stage veteran Lee Threadgold nicely underplays The Wizard of Oz as a dapper fellow with little self-awareness or remorse for the cost of his actions. In a dignified performance, Jon Sebastian earns the full sympathy for ill-treated professor Dr Dillamond.
Melbourne has been well served by the two professional seasons of Wicked but it is not too soon for fans to enjoy another helping, especially of this calibre. Newcomers to the show are sure to be utterly enthralled.
Wicked plays at National Theatre, St Kilda, Melbourne until 21 May 2016.
Photos: Ben Fon