REVIEW: WICKED by Stephen Schwartz & Winnie Holzman

The musical Wicked, loosely based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, probably needs no introduction. It’s the fourth longest-running show on Broadway ever, behind The Phantom of the Opera, the 1996 production of Chicago (which is visiting Melbourne again soon) and The Lion King. And it’s about to be turned into a two-part film, starring Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande, directed by Jon M. Chu, who made Crazy Rich Asians.

But just in case you didn’t know – it’s based on the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West (here named Elphaba) and her long-standing friendship with Glinda the Good Witch, before things go sour for her and the merry old land of… in The Wizard of Oz.

This is Wicked’s third time in Melbourne, after seasons in 2008-09 and 2014. And judging by the energy in the room on opening night, it has lost none of its power and it may have actually gained some along the way. Its reputation does precede it.

I saw the show a number of times when it was here originally because, apart from its meta commentary on The Wizard of Oz – a favourite film of mine (and of everyone?), it puts two powerhouse female performers at the centre of the show and has a layer of political commentary I never expected on first seeing the show in full. I knew the cast recording with Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel backward by then, but the story on stage is much more rich and complicated.

I didn’t see the show when it returned in 2014, so it’s been fifteen years since I attended Wicked’s first Melbourne closing-night and I was interested in seeing how much it might have changed, at least for me.

Although the amateur production rights are available in Australia (and it has popped up here and there in small venues over the years), the full Broadway production in all its glory is still a sight to see. Though the orchestra has been reduced this time around (no strings, for example), there does seem to be a few bells and whistles thrown up on stage to keep the show feeling like a spectacle.

And for a nearly three-hour show, it moves at breakneck speed. This is how (almost) sung-through musicals should feel, but I was surprised – knowing this show backwards and forwards – how well it still runs. In some ways, it feels a bit rushed – by jumping through Elphaba’s early life, teenage years and her trip to meet the Wizard, the first act flies by. Pun intended.

Stepping into the role of G(a)linda this time around is Courtney Monsma (recently Katherine Howard in SIX), who is full of the kind of manic energy this role needs and then some. This replica production seems to have allowed much more leeway for the two leads to try new things throughout – and where earlier Glindas might have had some fun with moments of improvisation, Monsma is running at two-hundred percent all the time. You never know what you’re going to get next. And she’s superb in some of the smaller, quieter moments, too. And while a performer in this role might well be judged on their rendition of the well-earned, tear-jerking For Good at the end, I am always looking to see how well a Glinda pulls off the more complicated, character-defining Thank Goodness early in the second act. Monsma is incredible here.

Sheridan Adams is Elphaba, who brings out the earnestness of the youthful witch, the pain of teen love and brought the house down with the act-one closer, Defying Gravity. Look, it’s a showstopping number, for sure, but I have never heard a theatre audience cheer so loud and with such enthusiasm. It felt like a rock concert moment or what I imagine a football stadium might sound like at the final siren. This opening night audience was abuzz from before the show and right through – they knew what was coming and it showed.

Beyond that one song, though, Adams absolutely commands the stage with No Good Deed and in her love-song duet with Fiyero, As Long As You’re Mine – which, for me, is one of the sexiest musical-theatre songs out there.

Australian theatre stalwarts Robyn Nevin (Madame Morrible) and Simon Burke (The Wizard) both got entrance applause – a phenomena I’ve only ever seen in New York, but these two deserve it for their careers alone. Their performances, of course, were stellar. The duplicitous Morrible in Nevin’s hands is made even more slippery and conniving. It while it was amusing both Elphaba and Glinda towered over her, Morrible was still a gale-force to be reckoned with. Burke’s Wizard is very charming although his rendition of Wonderful was less than that – the song feeling a bit more recited than really sung.

And what of the political text and subtext of the show? For a story that’s about not judging a book by its cover, it also addresses the duplicity of politicians and the corruption of public figures. When the show first went on stage in 2003, the Wizard was a kind of George W Bush figure (“a corn-fed hick”) and when Elphaba’s sister, Nessarose, takes over Munchkinland, it’s “regime change” – the kind of doublespeak used during the Invasion of Iraq.

Elphaba being born green is used as a shorthand for the experience of non-white people being quickly cast as the villains when things go wrong, too. This, of course, is still an ongoing issue and the jokes made at her expense now read much more explicitly as microaggressions. The story still works well at casting the Wicked Witch character in a new light and leaving the audience to interrogate how they judge people with different skin colour, though.

Nessarose (later the Wicked Witch of the East, seen only as a pair of striped-stocking legs in the 1939 film) is a wheelchair user and this might be the one character and story that feels decidedly dated. She’s explicitly described as “tragically beautiful” because she uses a chair – and the narrative moves slowly toward her making her first steps, a fix to the so-called “tragic” part of her existence. The character says that being able to walk will solve all her problems, even though she is also depicted as an authoritarian dictator when she becomes an unelected official.

I can see how the original conception of the character might have felt like an easy parallel to Elphaba – a person we judge because of a physical difference becomes more than we might have expected. But Nessa doesn’t gain our sympathies in the same way her green-skinned sister does and that’s an awful shame for the one disabled character on stage.

The character of Boq, who is much less important to the narrative, now he reads as an incel or any guy who has a parasocial relationship with a woman and will keep pursuing her regardless of whether she wants him to or not. With him in a relationship-of-convenience with Nessa, the turns in their stories feel incredibly cringe-worthy now.

I still love the character of Fiyero, though, and performer Liam Head absolutely nails the vain, shallow, brainless love interest. Even though he’s putatively at the centre of a typical musical love-triangle, it’s clear that Elphaba and Glinda love each other more than they love him. He is very charming, though. And it was clear that the entire student body of Shiz University had their heads turned when he arrived. Head gives us a striking entrance and two powerful goodbye moments in the show.

In the end, Wicked is as good as it ever was – I read the show just a little bit different now and it fails in a couple of ways I never noticed before. For a show whose premise reads as fan-fiction, the story is beautifully wrought and the juicy political layers still resonate. The wizard is wonderful because people say he is – and people will believe anything you tell them, if you say it enough times. Some of this stuff is as potent as ever.

And in an era when a lot of stage musicals are adaptations of films with huge name recognition, whether or not they feel like they even should be on stage, it’s nice that Wicked takes us inside a story we all know so well and upends it. Yes, it sells itself on our attachment to a very old film, but has more to do and say than just replicating a story we already know.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First 

Wicked is now playing at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne. Grab your broomstick and fly to see it.

Photos: Jeff Busby