I remember studying The Wizard of Oz back when I was in Grade Two of primary school. Its simple approach to storytelling and entertaining characters coupled with bright and charming aesthetics make it an approachable tale for those of all ages. To also give credit where it is due, the Tin Man’s little mid-movie ditty also helped attract attention from young eyes. But looking back at the original novel (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) by L. Frank Baum and 1939 musical fantasy film which many would have seen, there are many ambiguities and mysteries which remain unexplained in the original works of fiction.
This is where Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz comes in, serving as both a prequel and alternative perspective through the eyes of both The Wicked Witch of the West (Elpahaba) and The Good Witch of the North (Glinda). With neither character receiving much development in the source material other than them being depicted and defined as being “good” and “evil”, both had an almost clean slate to work with. Fortunately, the Wicked production and writing team used these characters and others to the fullest extent, providing a perfect standalone and complementary companion to what will forever been a timeless classic of film and literature – and likely becoming a timeless classic of theatre in its own right.
Targeted more at a teenage and adult audience rather than something that groups of school-age children would be interested in seeing, this darker and more mature tale depicts The Land of Oz as a darker place that is not free of genuine modern-day issues such as bigotry, harassment and an unwillingness to accept anyone who is even remotely different. It is a world far flung from the cheery people who happily sing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard”.
Wicked gives no illusion of trying to rewrite core events which occurred during the original Wizard of Oz storyline in any way, kick-starting the show into a powerful opening number “No One Mourns The Wicked”. This extended and attention-grabbing opening sees Glinda (Now performed by Suzie Mathers) announcing to the citizens of Oz that the “melting” of the Wicked Witch had occurred. This introduction also highlights elements of the Witch’s birth which in my opinion wouldn’t have fared as well drawn out into a separate song. From there, Wicked goes into a flashback mode and begins detailing events which led up to the opening announcement – living up to its fitting subtitle: “The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz”.
Wicked details the rivalry and eventual friendship formed between the smart and gifted girl known as Elphaba (Performed by Jemma Rix), who is met with revile by her father and fellow peers due to her green skin; and the somewhat shallow and self-centered “Miss Popular” Glinda – as both find their paths intertwined in a number of ways despite being completely opposite in terms of personality. The first half or so of the musical focused on the school-life element, where Elphaba begins her training to become a witch good enough to meet the legendary Wizard whilst attempting to break out of her shell and developing her own morals. The end product of this significant portion of Act 1 featuring a mixed bag of songs such as “Dancing Through Life” and “Popular”, which work well with the schoolyard theme and earned respectable applause from the audience. However, I wouldn’t say that any of the songs are particularly memorable. This is not to detract from the strong writing and is likely a matter of taste. With some interesting character development and scene setting for future events, even if the songs aren’t all to your liking, the storyline itself makes the first hour or so an integral component of the “Wicked” experience.
As the musical gets closer to the end of Act 1 and Act 2 begins, events become more chronologically aligned and relevant to the pre-existing story. While a noticeably shorter portion of the performance (Marked by an interval which is more than half-way through the performance), this is where many of the key events begin to run their course. It was great to see many of the loose-ends found in the source material effectively touched upon without lingering too much (or in many cases, at all) on events you could otherwise see on a DVD that would cost you <$20 to buy in stores. With engaging musical numbers such as the hit song “Defying Gravity” and “Wonderful”, a song which perfectly suited Simon Gallaher (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), this section of the storyline managed to stand out more than the first; as the many twists, distinct ideas and a few of its own in-jokes delivered a thrilling and consistently enjoyable experience full of genuine surprises.
Wicked has the musical element of its delivery down pat, with Jemma Rix and Suzie Mathers in particular delivering powerful vocals. These two performers are easily the most important component of Wicked and stood to make or break the musical, with either or both Rix and Mathers performing with/without other cast members in a good 75% of the featured songs. This duo is complemented by equally strong performances by the likes of Maggie Kirkpatrick (Madame Morrible), Steve Danielsen (Fiyero), Simon Gallaher and the various other named and ensemble cast members. However as someone I was with pointed out, those with sensitive hearing may want to bring some ear plugs just in case, as the pitch and general loudness of certain songs (Especially “No One Mourns The Wicked” and “Defying Gravity”) can potentially be discomforting.
That being said, none of this would have been possible without the work of Stephen Schwartz (Music and Lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (Book), whose work, when combined with the efforts of the other cast and crew members, has taken Wicked into its second and potentially equally prosperous decade.
While not holding back from any opportunity to go all glitz ‘n’ glamour or otherwise recreating a couple of the more iconic areas presented in the film, the base set itself you see as you walk into QPAC’s Lyric Theatre is designed to be more steampunk, with an emphasis on clockwork and less luxurious structures. It certainly left me stunned, and was far from my original expectations. But with a wide range of ceiling props at their disposal and a variety of different backdrop items, I found there to be a lot of versatility when adapting the stage to a particular scene. Warm applause must go to scenic designer Eugene Lee and lighting director Kenneth Posner for providing a set that is just as diverse and engaging as the music.
While it was a great if not nearly impossible challenge to go up against or even compare against The Lion King (Which only recently left QPAC’s Lyric Theatre to make way for Wicked) in terms of costuming, the work of Costume Designer Susan Hilferty still manages to shine. Each costume worn by the cast suited the tone and setting, from the typical (Albeit slightly retro) school student look in the earlier scenes to the excessively green attire donned by those in the Emerald City during the song “One Short Day”.
Final Words on Wicked the Musical
The Wizard of Oz is a classic story that many of us growing up would have watched and/or read at some point, and Wicked serves brilliantly as both a complement to its source material and in its own right. While there were only a few songs I would consider particularly memorable and I am not sure if there was enough on offer to justify me seeing it a second time around, it was nevertheless an enthralling, imaginative and entertaining stage musical which is in my opinion well worth the money and an afternoon/evening to see at least once.
Following a recent week-long extension, Wicked will be at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre until April 19th 2015 when it moves onto May 3rd. QPAC will also be holding an audio described performance tomorrow (March 4th 2015) at 1PM, with some tickets still available for purchase as of this post.
Check back on The Otaku’s Study soon to read my review of Wicked: The Grimmerie.
I would like to dedicate this review to my Grandfather, who was involved in stage musicals and other creative forms of entertainment since the 60’s. He sadly passed away two years ago today, and is still sorely missed by myself and my family.
Tickets to see Wicked were funded out of my own pocket.