Flying high

Wicked (Matt Ward Entertainment)

Home of the Arts

June 25 – July 6


Late in the story of “Wicked”, in his attempt to convince Elphaba to work with him, the Wizard comments on both the nature of truth and the best way to bring people together and make them happy. It’s a seemingly incidental scene amongst the musical’s procession of big moments, but it’s one that symbolises much of what makes Matt Ward Entertainment’s production of the untold story of the witches of Oz so compelling.


As the musical’s full name implies, its focus is the story behind the classic 1939 MGM musical fantasy film, “The Wizard of Oz”, the best-known and most commercially successful adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. Itself based on the best-selling novel by Gregory Maguire, “Wicked” charts the journey of the witches of Oz, Elphaba (Samantha Dodemaide) and Glinda (Emily Monsma), from their early days as sorcery students at Shiz University in the land of Oz to them being declared to be Wicked and Good. It’s an unlikely but sincere friendship that provides the emotional heart to what is actually a much bigger and more important story.


The musical unfolds as a flashback to before Dorothy has headed down the yellow brick road. Misjudged green girl Elphaba has arrived at Shiz with her tragically-beautiful wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Antonia Marr). When Headmistress Madame Morrible (Kaye Tuckerman) decides to take Nessarose into her protection, Elphaba is reluctantly left to room with the beautiful, popular and adorably-awkward almost Mean Girl Glinda. Tenions between the two are heighted when Fiyero (Trent Owers) arrives at school, given that both girls soon have a crush on the handsome Winkie Prince. Turns out that pink goes good with green though and the unlikely duo form a firm friendship… until they are forced apart as Elphaba’s politicisation and magical powers take her all the way to Oz to meet the Emerald City’s ‘wonderful’ Wizard (James Shaw).


Dodemaide and Monsma are simply wonderful as Elphaba and Glinda, united together until freedom fighter Elphaba is forced to choose between following the possibilities of her magical powers and accepting the status quo. And when the two women forgive each other and acknowledge their respective mistakes in ‘For Good’, it makes for a moving musical moment.


However, there is more to “Wicked” than big ballads and a heartfelt story of true friendship and this production’s subtle emphasis on the political underpinnings of the storyline of talking animals facing an oppressive regime easily inspires audience appreciation from a 2019 perspective. Prejudice is everywhere in the world on stage, starting with Elphaba’s rejection by others at the university due to the colour of her skin, meaning that the show works on many levels, as political allegories do. And its resonating commentary on the nature of truth (“The truth isn’t in a thing of fact, or reason. It’s simply what everyone agrees on,” the Wizard warns us) makes it easy to watch even in fifth experience of a production of the show, with afresh eyes to notice the little details that make its excellence so thorough. Indeed, this is an incredibly crafted piece of theatre, especially in its original story nods of the flying monkeys, ruby slippers and cowardly lion et al sort. And the invented malapropisms that pepper the dialogue of Glinda in particular are an ongoing delight to the audience.


Still, “Wicked” is a musical that is defined by its soundtrack and with help from the live orchestra (Musical Director and Conductor Craig Renshaw) William David Brohn’s orchestrations are brought to wonderfully harmonious life in reminder of what makes this one of the best musical scores around. At the centre of the taxing score is the mammoth role of the passionate and intelligent Elphaba, which Dodemaide absolutely owns. She is a vocal giant, able to hold a note like no-one’s business (seen in Act Two’s ‘No Good Deed’) who shows compelling control over time signatures and changes, all the while conveying her character’s changing emotions of disappointment, frustration, betrayal and resignation. Her earnest ‘Wizard and I’ is an early standout, delivered flawlessly in play to all sections of the audience. And then there is the crown jewel of the score, “Defying Gravity’ which is as good any I’ve seen in Australia or overseas. As the score builds upon its earlier leitimotifs to its grand realisation, so too does the emotion of her epic vocals, meaning that when Elphaba finds power through her own outsider status and takes broomstick flight, the only appropriate response can be thunderous applause in understanding of why it is one of the greatest Act One finales in musical theatre history.


Monsma plays the spoiled and sweetly stuck-up Glinda in animated and deliberately over-the-top detail down to every nuanced facial expression and awkward reaction, especially when she decides to give Elphaba a makeover in the peppy ‘Popular’. In addition to her comedic talent, the role also offers showcase of her accomplished vocals, whether operatic or in powerful belt.


The dashing Fiyero is marvellously played by Owers, like Gaston of “Beauty and the Beast” without the arrogant swagger. And Shaw has some memorable moments as the Wizard; his Act Two ‘Wonderful’ is a whimsical, vaudevillian-esque detail to Elphaba about how he got to Oz in the first place and became The Wonderful Wizard that his subjects know.


Maria-Rose Payne’s production design is stunning. Sound and lighting are generally excellent, although projection of the Wizard’s warning is difficult to decider. And Jess Bennett’s animated costume design is impressive, capturing the unbalanced asymmetry of the world and offering many standout scenes from an aesthetic perspective, such as the black and white patterned palette of the university orientation party where the two witches begin to see each other in a different light and the extravagant green gusto of the Wizard’s Emerald City.


“Wicked’ is an ambitious musical undertaking, in its required retelling of an iconic story, but also due to the fandom associated with the musical juggernaut, however, this production realises the spectacle in spectacular fashion. Under Tim Hill’s fine direction, its strong, energetic cast make it a soaring entertaining experience of this classic work (if classic can be assigned as a descriptor to a musical that only premiered on Broadway in 2003, to mixed reviews and then lost out to “Avenue Q” for the Tony Award for Best Musical).

Hairspray happiness

Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular (Harvest Rain)

Brisbane Convention Centre

April 8 – 10

Harvest Rain’s “Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular” is everything it promises…. It’s big, fat and full of fun, perfect for the final days of school holidays. With a mass ensemble of 900 young performers (some as young as nine years old), the Brisbane Convention Centre is often filled to the point of never knowing where exactly to look, which is perhaps befitting for a show in which the bulk of the characters are teenagers themselves.

The musical has evolved through various incarnations, from the 1988 John Waters’ big-screen original to a Tony Award winning Broadway production and subsequent 2007 film. The plot here remains the same as the audience is taken to segregated 1962 Baltimore. Fiesty teen Tracy Turnblad (Lauren McKenna), a big girl with a big heart and even bigger hair, has only one desire – to be a dancer on the popular Corny Collins TV show. When her dream comes true, Tracy is transformed from social outcast to sudden star alongside her teen idol, Link Larkin (Dan Venz), but it is a transition that doesn’t come without its problems as her social conscious compels her to spearhead a campaign to racially integrate the show.

It is a production filled with movement and energy from its opening moments. After a rousing ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ in which Tracy muses about her fondness for her hometown, her love of dancing, and her desire to be famous, the pace pumps with a toe-tapping introduction to the Corny Collins TV cast, the ‘Nicest Kids in Town’. The mass ensemble adds interest to the aesthetic when synchronized in their choreography and while a full scale ‘The Madison’ is a little overwhelming, the tsunami of performers that floods the stage for the show’s famous final anthem ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ makes for a memorable conclusion. The optikal bloc projections across the screen (bigger that the biggest IMAX in the world) also enhance the explosion of colour created by staging and costumes.

McKenna (seen recently as Martha in “Heathers”) is fabulous as the ever-optimistic Tracy, big on voice and personality. And her comic performance in swoon over Link during her Act One ‘I Can Hear The Bells’ dream about what life would be like if she pursued a relationship with him, makes her all the more infectiously likeable. She is supported by a strong cast, including Venz as teenage heartthrob Larkin and Emily Monsma as Tracy’s dorky and devoted best friend Penny. Indeed, Monsma embraces every opportunity provided by the side-kick role, making it very much her own and stealing every scene in which she appears. Simon Burke is touching in the classic cross-dressing role of Tracey’s house-bound, fearful mother Edna, who makes for an endearing double act with on-stage husband Wilbur (Wayne Scott Kermond). Their performance of ‘You’re Timeless to Me’ is at once tender and comic-filled.

Tim Campbell is perfect as the peppy Corny Collins, with sensational voice and smooth dance moves that leave the audience wanting to see more. And as Seaweed Stubbs, Barry Conrad (perhaps best known for his time on “X-Factor Australia” in 2013) showcases some outstanding vocals. Amanda Muggleton seems to delight in the dastardly role of station producer Velma Von Tussle with Cruella de Vil like glee, bringing a cartoonish villainy to the larger-than-life character. And as the self-described big, blonde and beautiful Motormouth Maybelle, host of The Corny Collins Show’s Negro Day, Christine Anu brings attitude and then some. Her soulful rendition of the musical’s most serious-minded song, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ makes for a powerful and inspiring anthem.


So skilled and entertaining are the core cast that it almost makes you wish for the usual theatre stage experience where intimacy and character connection have not been sacrificed in creation of the record breaking production, as like in 2014’s “Cats”, the spectacular’s scale is sometimes alienating to full appreciation of individual lead performances.

“Hairspray” is a happy musical of good humour and fun. With the addition of 900 excited youths, the joy within the “Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular” eventatorium is infectious. With buoyant performances and toe-tapping ‘60s-style musical numbers, there is certainly much to smile about both during and in memory of the experience of being welcomed to the ‘60s.