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).

Pink and green go good together


QPAC, Lyric Theatre

February 15 – April 19

Stories make the world, but every story has its limitations and it takes exploration of its gaps and to bring it to new life. Such is the case with the musical “Wicked”, which tells the story of two unlikely friends and how they became the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good. And such is the power of its storytelling that it soon repositions audience empathy towards the original villain of “The Wizard of Oz” by presenting its plausible parallel version of events from the perspective of those in the Land of Oz.


Suzie Mathers brings a freshness to the role of Glinda the perky, popular, pocket-rocket Good Witch. From the moment she bubbles in, her presence fills the stage, bringing light-hearted relief to some of the show’s darker moments. It is a physical role, filled with precise and nuanced movements and she does justice to every moment in realisation of her loveable character. Indeed, the makeover number between Glinda and Elphaba, ‘Popular’, is one of the show’s comedic high-points. Yet this is tempered with some solid vocal moments, particularly in proclamations to the Ozian population, thanks to her strong operatic voice.

But the show really belongs to Jemma Rix as the ‘wicked’ witch Elphaba and it is impossible not get chills ask her voice rings out from high above stage during the ultimate Act One closer ‘Defying Gravity’. Her impressive voice soars not only here, but also in her more ballady numbers, as she takes the audience along on her roller coaster of emotions, from gentle sadness to booming anger, bringing depth and dignity to a role that easily could have fallen into caricature.

Mathers and Rix work together beautifully to complement each other’s performances, bringing out the subtleties in their characters, showing how similar the two characters are (even down to loving the same man) and proving how ‘pink and green really go good together’. Indeed, all the actors inhabit their characters with complete conviction, with (in particular) Maggie Kirkpatrick presenting as a solid Madame Morrible and Simon Gallagher giving an emphatic portrayal of the ‘Wonderful’ Wizard behind the smoke and mirrors.

The show also looks and sounds superb. The set entices the audience from before the iconic Emerald City map curtain is even raised, as it literally branches out into the stalls, under the watch of an overhead dragon. The lighting too is nothing short of glorious, showcasing a sparkling Act One party and the glory of the Emerald City in all of its glowing green.


“Wicked” is more than a show; it’s an illustration of why people love musicals. After seeing four different productions now, both in Australia and overseas (putting it up there with “Rent” for me), I can only continue to marvel at is wonder and appreciate each one’s unique take. Expectedly, the show is peppered with references to its source material, however, there are also a number of clever political allusions not only through its Orwellian ideas of animals being seen but not heard, but to events in world political history. Look for the history timeline of OZ which begins with the Assassination of an Archduke with a shot heard ‘down the street’ and consider the flying monkey spies set to report back to the Wizard and the blurred lines between propaganda and politics.

When “Wicked” opened on Broadway, it worked its magic on critics and audiences alike to win 90 major awards including a Grammy, three Tony Awards and six Helpmann Awards including Best Musical. Indeed, The New York Times hailed it as “the defining musical of the decade” and over ten years later it is still easy to see why. This touring production is spectacular in every way and, as such, is guaranteed to leave you spellbound, whether this be your first or a repeat journey to the Emerald City.

Green machine magic

Edinburgh Playhouse
November 19 – January 10


One of the annoying things about seeing live theatre in the UK is the way that everyone in the audience eats and drinks their way through shows, like at the movies. In the case of “Wicked”, this noise seems to fade into the distance as soon as Ashleigh Gray, as Elphaba, begins her Act One rendition of ‘The Wizard and I’, reminding musical lovers of everything that is magical about the genre.

Gray brings a strong and feisty characterisation to the iconic role and is utterly at home in her green skin as she belts out ballads and defies gravity high above the stage. And although it is a shame not see her flying, but rather appear levitated amid a giant black sheet of draping, it is still a sensational act closer. Emily Tierney sparkles as Glinda, the Good Witch, leaving a lasting impression with her enthusiastic comedy choices and panto-esque delivery of her character’s trademark mispronouncations, even if she is breathy and not of strongest voice in some songs, like ‘Popular’. Marilyn Cutts makes the malevolent Madame Morrible deliciously dastardly, however, as the villainous wizard, Steven Pinder’s interpretation is more panto than palpably dark.

Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel of the same name, the 2003 musical serves as prequel to L Frank Baum’s iconic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as it shares the backstory of Oz’s witches, Elphaba and Glydia before the arrival of Dorothy and Toto and reveals how the Wicked Witch of the West is perhaps not that wicked after all. The intertextual references to now peripheral characters (like in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”) makes this a layered story that forces those familiar with the original tale, if only through the 1939 movie, to rethink their allegiance and consider a new found empathy for and understanding of the wicked witch’s motivation.

There is little that hasn’t been said about the story of the friendship between the unlikely duo of witches and little that has changed since their story first took the world by storm over a decade ago. What saves the show from tedium, however, are the glorious songs and the visual spectacle. The set is simply spectacular, the staging creative and the design elements of the finest quality. Costumes are appropriately over-the-top, particularly in the glitz of the green city.

Even after repeated viewings, it is easy to see why the “Wicked” green machine is a cultural phenomenon. The show is genuinely exciting in its scale and the story is as engaging as ever, driven as it is by clever plot and memorable songs. Indeed, all the elements which make it a wonderful musical theatre experience remain and its universal themes of friendship and acceptance in the face of intolerance resonate just as strongly as ever in a modern world in which Oz’s ban on animals talking and the resulting fear and division parallels Putin’s Russia.

The Wicked Witch is not quite dead

Amanda Harrison – Up Close and Reasonably Personal

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

January 17


With a stage bathed in green, hopes were high that Amanda Harrison would be Defying Gravity during her show “Up Close and Reasonably Personable” until things kicked off with Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead! Finally, after ongoing comic coaxing from pianist Bev Kennedy (who even gives the song a try herself), Harrison’s Elphaba does appear in closing, to belt out a wicked ‘The Wizard and I’.

Harrison is easily one of the most talented leading ladies in Australian musical theatre, best known, of course, for her impressive performance as the original Elphaba in the Australian production of “Wicked”, (which earned her Green Room, Helpmann and Sydney Theatre Award nominations for Best Leading Actress in a Musical). Indeed, Elphaba features frequently in the night’s proceedings, as Amanda reflects on the size and energy of the role, the experience of balancing responsibilities as witch, wife and mother and her ultimate decision to hang up her witch’s hat for the sake of her voice.

And what a voice it is! The intimate (‘within reason’) show features a diverse selection of songs, all of which are clearly of personal significance. Selections range from the perkiness of  ‘Sunshine and Lollypops’ to a touching rendition of ‘Tennessee Waltz’, a ‘80s rock chick delivery of ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ and the inspiring ‘Let It Go’, from the movie “Frozen”, which Harrison performed at last month’s Carols in the Domain. In true cabaret style, these are intermingled with observations and comic confessions including of her Target fetish and Facebook addiction. The audience, too is encouraged to anonymously share their secrets on slips of paper which are included in the second act, to hilarious effect.

This is a light-hearted cabaret about its star, the delivery of which is, accordingly, friendly and engaging in tone. Unfortunately, a large venue such as the Powerhouse Theatre, is far from the intimate atmosphere that characterises the shared experience of a cabaret. At its core, however, cabaret is about the music and in this area, Harrison excels, showcasing her big voice and impressive ability to hold a note… to sing it high, sing it low and let them know.