It is certainly ambitious for any company to take on one of the biggest shows ever to hit Broadway, but to do it with a cast of 114 young performers aged 10 to 20 years of age, sounds like madness. However, the Young Australian Broadway Chorus not only takes it on, but shows the pros how it’s done. This is a production with all the right ingredients to make a show work. The talent on stage is of a completely professional standard regardless of the performers’ ages and the production values are right up there too. There are no weak links in this ensemble as they give performances truly worthy of the standing ovation they received from their opening night audience at St. Kilda’s National Theatre.
Wicked – “the untold story of the witches of Oz” – was inspired by the book The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. This telling by composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz seeks to fill in the missing pieces of the well known Wizard of Oz story by L .Frank Baum and is told from the perspective of the story’s most hated character, Elphaba, the famed wicked witch herself. Was she really wicked? Or was she a victim of circumstance who used her power and intelligence to stand up to authority and what she believed in? Wicked is based on the unlikely friendship between the very different, green- skinned Elphaba and the vacuous but popular blond Glinda. There is much comedy and equal parts drama in this tale, where we see their friendship develop and eventually reach a turning point where each must choose a path. Glinda chooses to toe the line and remain popular, while Elphaba sticks to her beliefs and faces the wrath of the Wizard who turns the fear and hatred of the population upon her.
It is in essence a political, social and ethical commentary on the nature of good and evil. Indeed it raises issues such as racism, sexism and the persecution of minorities, which resonate clearly in our daily headlines. Of course there are the entanglements of love, the complications of family obligations and the dire consequences of the characters actions. The principal cast is outstanding, with Emily Svarnias as Elphaba showing a maturity of performance well beyond her nineteen years. Her vocals are strong and clear throughout, despite the endurance the role demands. Her on- stage chemistry with lover Fiyero played by Rishab Shrivastav was touching, and his performance was strong, warm and beautifully sung. Equally brilliant in the role of Glinda is Jasmine Arthur who is a natural comic actor of enormous ability, whose voice is perfect for this part. Her American accent and vocals are flawless and perfectly placed. Their teacher and eventual arch nemesis Madame Morrible is played with great flair by Emily Palmer. Her performance was so convincing that at interval, I had to seek confirmation that the role wasn’t in fact being played by a veteran actress. It seemed unbelievable that a nineteen year old could create such a complete illusion of age and delightful evil.
The entire principal cast is worthy of mention, with Taylor Troeth as Nessarose, Elphaba’s disabled sister, in a wonderful character transformation from pathetic wheelchair- bound school girl to bitter and twisted governor of Munchkin Land. Her doomed love for Munchkin boy Boq, delightfully played by Darcy Harriss, has made her a monster. But Boq’s obsession with Glinda angers Nessarose and sets off a chain of events which turns him into the Tin Woodsman and dovetails into the Oz story we all know. Even Dorothy comes into the story for the famous showdown with the Wicked Witch and that bucket of water.
The role of Doctor Dillamond whose tragic downfall triggers the events which catapult Elphaba towards her fate is played with pathos and dignity by nineteen year old Tristan Sicari. Pulling the strings behind the scenes is the Wizard of Oz himself, who laments that his people no longer see him as “the Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. He is played with wry humour by seventeen year old Jackson Hurwood in the style of an old-time midway showman, which the Wizard certainly was. I will also mention Liam Charleston in a small role as Elphaba’s governor father, which he played with great aplomb and sang with a tenor voice that deserves a more extended showing next time.
Supporting all the onstage talent was the 20 piece pit orchestra also made up of YABC members under the baton of musical director Andy Coates. They achieved a clear, well balanced mix with the vocals, through brilliant sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco. There were wig microphones on almost all soloists but there were none of the problems that usually plague large shows like this. The stage sets are simple and effective using an Edwardian industrial style. Large mechanical stage props and the use of the theatres fly tower to carry Glinda, Elphaba and flying monkeys is just amazing. Add to that the atmospheric lighting design by Linda Hum and you have a show which technically, artistically and musically delivers the goods.
The task of rehearsing and directing a cast of this size, with a chorus of 85 was seamlessly achieved by director Robert Coates who has the whole show running with military precision. The more tender moments are showcased beautifully within the action surrounding them. The chorus is faultless, so I guess all those after- school and weekend rehearsals really paid off. The choreography by Jacqui Green is truly a visual feast, with all the cast, not just the dancers, moving constantly to create the over 50 different scenes. Even scene changes are rigorously rehearsed to effect seamless transitions. There is even an additional children’s chorus of nine to fit in there, but it works perfectly. The long and exhaustive preparation really showed in the curtain calls where all 114 performers took their bows, row by row without one hitch.
The costumes designed by Jennifer McKenzie are a big feature of this production. The Emerald City costumes are a standout, but then they all are, all the hundreds of them there were. One imagines while one chorus of 44 are on stage as Munchkins and soldiers, the other 41 must’ve been getting ready in their ball gowns and tuxedos. The mind boggles!
This is indeed a massive undertaking, but the YABC has achieved an amazing result. They have presented a piece of musical entertainment which should restore our faith in the Australian live entertainment industry. We should be heartened that there is such a wealth of talent for the future.
What this company lacks in age and experience, it makes up for with total commitment and enthusiasm. This is a must- see production for everyone who can get themselves to the National Theatre before the short season concludes on January 27. You will not be disappointed.