The non-professional rights to towering blockbuster musical Wicked were recently made available for Australian musical societies. Now, after two professional productions have played the Capitol Theatre, a first non-professional production has hit Sydney for the first time, courtesy of Neil Gooding’s Pro-Am company, Packemin Productions, based in Parramatta.
And it’s good.
With set and costume design that’s a lovely, smaller-scale version of the Broadway replica production that toured Australia (on loan from CLOC theatre, who staged Australia’s first non-professional production of the show) and familiar orchestrations, the real difference in this production is Neil Gooding’s direction – and it benefits tremendously from his fresh eye and keen understanding of character building within musical numbers.
When Australia launches commercial productions of big Broadway or West End hits, they generally come pre-packaged. The costumes are precisely the same. The sets and movement are the same. When the lead on Broadway raised an arm for emphasis, so too will our lead; everything is already decided. Resident directors ensure the ‘integrity’ of the show –that is, how it looked originally overseas – is intact.
But often this divorces emotional investment in the story from the process of making a show. Actors can seem like they’re moving without intention; choreography isn’t given a chance to find something new in the score now that there’s a new production in a new space. Lighting sequences are locked in. If these big shows feel cold, and all about song and dance numbers over the narrative, it’s because they’re replicas, and maybe no one really felt like they owned the story on stage – audiences’ included. This doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens enough.
That’s why it’s almost stunning to see Wicked, one of the most influential shows and biggest hits for over a decade, interpreted by someone other than someone acting on behalf of Joe Mantello, who set it for Broadway.
Gooding’s changes aren’t radical; rather, they are exploratory. You can almost see the gears turning in Boq’s (Nicholas Richard) head as he makes up his mind to commit to dancing with Nessarose (Manon Gunderson-Briggs) almost as an act of revenge against the oblivious Glinda (Mikayla Williams) during “Dancing Through Life,” and similarly, in this number, which always felt a little too rote and predictable on the big stage, there’s a new panic to Elphaba (Ashleigh O’Brien) and her defiantly solo dance moves, and then a sublime tenderness when Glinda joins her; there’s a true sense of a bond being formed. This is an important moment of the show that finally seems to be given its due.
The show has a bigger heart in Gooding’s hands. Elphaba and Glinda have a sincere and touching friendship that is performed with evolving honesty by O’Brien and Williams; O’Brien’s defensive prickliness softens for Glinda and Fiyero (Linden Furnell), only to transform into a towering sense of righteous anger when she’s seen across Oz as Wicked. Her vocal performance is top-notch and compelling in its scope; she knows when to hold back, to keep soft moments small and those big numbers surprisingly huge. Her Elphaba is conflicted, principled, and lonely; it’s impossible not to root for her.
Williams’ Glinda is, crucially, likable from the first: she’s clearly an entitled ditz but her good heart is never really too far from the surface. A lot of that is in Williams’ generous soprano and her self-conscious comedy; it’s clear that Glinda’s shallowness is a performance as much as Fiyero’s is always allowed to be.
This Wicked is also more earnestly political, and that might be the best thing about it. The outrageous discrimination driving Oz’s creeping new totalitarian regime is never far from the forefront; Gooding’s clearer storytelling refuses to bury the story’s cries for rights for the oppressed under the show’s love triangle or musical numbers. The Wizard (Wayne Scott Kermond) is a showman, but it’s always clear that he’s every affable politician whose demeanour belies his dangerous agenda; he’s afraid of power, which he doesn’t have, and difference, which is a kind of power, that he still doesn’t have – even as non-Ozian and therefore an outsider himself.
The clarity of Gooding’s staging (and Amy Campbell’s smart choreography), which feels faithful to the professional
Broadway replica but is thoughtfully re-considered for the Riverside stage, allows a little more space and time for Dr. Dillamond (Jeremy Curtin); his plight is more acutely felt in this production, which makes his return a real blow to anyone invested in the story, helping to foreground Elphaba’s shift away from Oz and towards her inevitable end. These things have always been in Winnie Holzman’s efficient book, but her book is so bare – stepping-stones rather than complete narrative construction – that the musical really needs its other elements, like direction, staging, and movement, to really fill in those gaps. Packemin has risen wonderfully to that challenge.
The show isn’t without its glitches. Peter Hayward’s musical direction often sees the band racing ahead, leaving vocalists struggling to catch up; their sound was otherwise quite good but the discordant match between voice and music is a fast way to pull audiences out of the moment and break the spell. Generally, though, by the end of each number synchronicity had been found. There were also some mic and tech glitches, as well as some uncertainty in the cast when it came to handling props and set pieces. Happily, most of these things can and likely will be sorted out during the run, and may just be contained to the opening night performance.
Largely, this production of Wicked is a terrific surprise, bursting with life, heart, and talent – and its ticket price is much cheaper than the previous professional tours that have since been and gone through the city and country. This is a fantastic opportunity to see a blockbuster and look at it closely – and maybe even appreciate anew what makes it work so well. We have excellent interpreters of musical theatre in this country. Neil Gooding is one of them. We are so lucky to have him.