REVIEW: Wicked (The Civic) [The Ozmapolitan Edition]

Jemma Rix as Elphaba
Green with delight: Jemma Rix as Elphaba

The Emerald City in Auckland City [by James Wenley]

Theatre Scenes Reviewers Sharu Delilkan and James Wenley both went to opening night of Wicked. This was James’s fourth time at Wicked. He saw the Australian Cast in Sydney twice in late 2009, thrashed the Broadway cast recording, and saw the London West End production in June this year. He writes as an acknowledged Wicked fan, the Ozmapolitan.

Jemma Rix as Elphaba
Green with delight: Jemma Rix as Elphaba

For its 75th Anniversary, The Wizard of Oz is currently playing in the United States in a re-release converted into Imax 3D. Flogging a dead horse of a different colour? Not at all. While gimmicky (the word is that it’s a rather special experience), it proves the remarkable ongoing legacy and endurance of MGM’s 1939 film masterpiece. While L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels (1900-1919) are much appreciated, it is the film (and its songs and technicolour imagery) that has attached itself, like ruby slippers on Judy Garland’s feet, so fully onto the American psyche.

With fantastical charm, strong moral values, a worldly innocence, and undertones of American exceptionalism (what is Somewhere over the Rainbow if not an ode to the American Dream?), Oz has remained a timeless classic for those “young at heart”, and despite of or perhaps because of its many production troubles, is one of the great works of the 20th Century.

Ten years ago, a revisionist Musical prequel to the Oz story landed on Broadway, changing the Musical landscape. Based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel (with substantial changes), Winnie Holzman (book) and Stephen Schwartz’s (Lyrics and Music) Wicked is a Musical for our times. A courageous combination of spectacle, nostalgia, modern cynicism and “moral ambiguities”, with powerhouse songs like Defying Gravity, you can understand why it won the hearts and minds of the Broadway public, and subsequently audiences around the world.

Our neighbours in Oz got in early on the act, premiering in Melbourne in July 2008 but rather than taking it to Auckland immediately after their Australia national tour in 2011, it went to Singapore and Korea first. Auckland has had to endure a long wait for one of the biggest Musicals in the world. Now here in The Civic, the magical set, overlooked by a dragon, feels right at home.

With Wicked’s success it seems obvious now, but there must have been a question about whether Margaret Hamilton’s iconic performance as the cackling, gleeful, and at times frightening portrayal of the green skinned Wicked Witch of the West could have been dislodged. For that is the task that the Musical sets itself, making the Witch – Elphaba – our protagonist, going back into her past (ala Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace) to discover what made her, well, wicked (and the answer may surprise newcomers to the show).  The story begins at the proclamation of her watery death (“Good news! She’s dead! The Wicked old witch is dead”), and bubble-traveling Glinda the Good guides us back to the untold story of how they met at school and their paths continued to intersect.

Jemma Rix began as the Elphaba understudy in the Australian cast, and soon became lead. Having flown in over 800 performances as Elphaba, her experience leads this new cast for the Auckland season of mostly Wicked newcomers. Jemma was my first, and remains, my favourite “Elphy”. Elphaba, the unloved daughter of the Munchkin Governor, begins as an underdog, an ugly duckling ostracisd by her schoolmates for her complexion, with lingering doubts about her own worth. She uses a defensive mask of humour to get by. Rix wonderfully brings out Elphaba’s nerdish quirks and deflective comedy. Living and breathing the role, she’s a fresh and contemporary heroine, doing the Zooey Deschanel and Lena Dunham thing before even they were doing it. Rix’s vocals are sublime, sending shivers in a commanding performance of centerpiece Defying Gravity, or when unleashing in No Good Deed, but also having a focused subtlety in less overtly showy moments. Rix is the perfect Elphaba.

Suzie Mathers similarly makes for a good backstory, having started in Melbourne as an off-stage vocal swing, moved to the ensemble, took a break to star in Mamma Mia, and eventually going from understudy to became Glinda for the company’s Asia tour. She takes her Glinda on a satisfyingly full journey – from a vain blonde student to a troubled young woman, unsure of the good thing to do. She makes comic Popular delightfully her own and is just at ease with operatic trills as she is with Musical Theatre belt.

Australian legend Maggie Kirkpatrick has played Madame Morrible since the premiere Australian season, and I was pleased to revisit her expert performance. Despite the character being the villain of the piece, Kirkpatrick disarms you with the warmness of her bearing. Glen Hogstram is a sympathetic Doctor Dillamind, the obligatory goat on the Shiz school faculty.

The rest of the leads make their Wicked debuts for this Auckland season. Steve Danielsen ably fills out the tight white pants of romantic lead Fiyero. I’ve tended to find this character a bit of a weak link, but thankfully Danielsen brings more credible charm than cheese. He’s described as a “relative newcomer to the Musical Theatre stage”, and on opening night he seemed to be still finding his way (his performance of Dancing Through Life at the media call earlier in the week was superior). All the ingredients are there, and I have no doubt his star will continue to rise. Emily Cascarino is an appealing Nessarose (Elphaba’s wheelchair bound younger sister), and Edward Grey impresses as love-struck Boq.

The hard-working ensemble clearly relish being involved with this show, and combined with the leads, you can understand why Schwartz describes this as the best cast in years. Led by Rix and Mathers, Auckland has got a cast of yellow brick quality.

The exception is returning kiwi Jay Laga’aia, whose Wizard is full of hot air. While the character itself – Mr Smoke and Mirrors himself – is insubstantial and inauthentic, this could also be the assessment of Laga’aia’s performance itself. His instincts seem odd – showy shtick and a strange high-pitched accent for a character that seems to float without any weighting in a reality (be it Kansas, Oz, or otherwise). It’s a distracting style of performance that just doesn’t seem to belong in the world of this Musical.

In revisiting Wicked for the fourth time, some of the Emerald lustre does wear off and its flaws emerge from behind the face of Oz. While the Musical generally skips along, it grinds to a halt when introducing Doctor Dillamond and a subplot involving animal rights in Oz. The schoolyard antics of Act One and a visit to Emerald City are immensely enjoyable, but Act Two has an altogether more difficult job as it tries to bring a darker tone and weave the characters and plot points home. While it is fun to play along with the spotting-The-Wizard-of-Oz-references game (lemons and melons and pears, oh my!), the events of that story are used as a crutch in quickly wrapping up the Wicked story. Sometimes you just have to go with it: “We all went to school together” offers Glinda as an explanation.

Despite this, Wicked remains a Musical that I admire and love. There is a strong case that Wicked (perhaps with The Book of Mormon), is the most significant Musical of the early 21st Century. It is fantastical allegory, very much a zeitgeist of its times. For one it feeds into the fad of prequels/sequels and nostalgia over “new” properties, it is fitting indeed that it relies so heavily on an older work.

Elphaba’s Over the Rainbow moment, The Wizard and I, nods not to blue birds and lemon drops but fame, celebrity, and being loved (“Someday there’ll be a celebration throughout Oz that’s all to do with me!”)

But Wicked as zeitgeist goes deeper still in its political subtext. Debuting on Broadway two years after 9/11 and in the thick of the Iraq War, it challenged the political orthodoxy of the Bush administration and presents ongoing questions about political power. The Wizard of Wicked is not only a fraud, but manipulates his citizens, understanding that “Where I’m from, the best way to bring people together… is to give them a really good enemy”. In Wonderful he sings: “There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities so we act as though they don’t exist”. With black and white political messaging that gave us terms like “Axis of Evil”, Wicked gives a fuller colour spectrum.

But if Wicked was just about this it would be dour indeed. Wicked’s heart is the story of its friendship between Elphaba and Glinda, and I think it is here – where two radically different people come to understand and admire one another – that the true secret to Wicked’s success can be found. There’s a bit of Elphaba and Glinda in all of us.

Schwartz creates a score unique to Wicked and world’s away from The Wizard of Oz; it is bold, heavy,  and while it sometimes threatens to get weighted down in its pomposity, where Schwartz finds his lightness of touch it is magical: What is this Feeling?, Dancing Through Life, I’m not that Girl, and For Good are some of my highlights. With a top class orchestra (filled out by some local musicians), not to mention the vocals of Rix, Mathers et al, Wicked sounds good.

Wicked delivers one of the best experiences of contemporary Music Theatre. Its big moments of spectacle are many: the Oz Dust Ball, the Emerald City, and of course, Elphaba defying gravity, the star burst lights creating one of the great images of the Musical Theatre stage.

Auckland has waited ten years for Wicked. And we have been rewarded with a production that is wicked in every way. With confidence, I can tell you that this is superior to the production currently playing on London’s West End. Let the Queen St pavement lead you to the best of Broadway, a show of yellow brick quality.

Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz plays at The Civic until 24 November. More details see The Edge

Read Sharu Delilkan’s Review of Wicked: The Girl from Kansas

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Kate Ward-Smythe

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