Wicked review – 20 years on, this Wizard of Oz prequel still charms

Memory is a funny thing. It’s been 20 years since the first performance of Wicked, the Wizard of Oz prequel musical based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel. These days it’s hard to think of it as anything but the first smash-hit stage show of the 21st century.

You can’t avoid it in pop culture: it’s in our gone-viral history, our reality competition challenges, our TV shows for theatre kids or those who love a dramedy. You can’t even pick up a comic book without finding the trickster god Loki singing a Wicked number in the shower. It’s clear that these witches are here to stay.

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Locally, we’ve fallen just as hard for it. Thursday marked Wicked’s third opening night in Sydney after two previous, staggeringly popular productions – the 2008 Australian premiere, which made a star out of Lucy Durack and featured Australian Idol finalist Rob Mills in his stage debut, and a return season in 2014, when Durack reunited with vocal powerhouse Jemma Rix.

It is worth remembering that it took the world a while to stop resisting Wicked’s charms. When it first landed in 2003, Wicked received mixed reviews and missed out on the big categories at the 2004 Tony awards. (It still won best scenic design, costumes and a best actress award for Idina Menzel, setting her on the path to becoming another conflicted, magical heroine in Disney’s Frozen). Twenty years on, does Wicked hold up after distance and time? The answer is a qualified yes. Yes, almost. Sort of. But.

Wicked might not be perfect, but it moves swiftly and neatly. Winnie Holzman’s book is so efficient that every single moment of it contributes, in some small way, to advancing either plot or character. Sure, there are plot holes, generalisations and a few unearned motivational swings. The drag of the Wizard’s numbers (performed charmingly here by Todd McKenney) slow things down, and the decision to leave the second-act heel turn for Elphaba’s sister Nessarose (Shewit Belay) off the Wicked cast recording is appreciated; watching the scene play out, you see its weaknesses.

And, because this production is a replica of the original (helmed here by Lisa Leguillou), you can see members of the ensemble searching for their marks and giving old line readings. Many performances feel hesitant, like the cast can’t quite trust their own instincts yet.

But then there’s Courtney Monsma. Recently Princess Anna in Disney’s Frozen, she is this production’s great gift as Galinda, the spoiled mean girl who will eventually wind up as beloved Glinda the Good. Monsma has a beautiful voice that sparkles, with operatic top notes. She makes playful, subtle choices that bring in new liveliness. She is a superstar.

And there’s Stephen Schwartz’s music. It might not be the most inventive Broadway fare, but it’s cleverly structured with an eye to theme, featuring recurring and stirring motif and leitmotif. Its melodies have power, switching major and minor keys for extra narrative – and emotional – effect. But there are cracks and creaks even here: a few missteps in the orchestra and with the sound design. On opening night the music sounded thin and far away, dimming the magic.

Still, there’s Defying Gravity. In terms of theatrical spectacle, it’s right up there with Phantom of the Opera’s chandelier: it’s the moment the show makes you gasp, and feel a little more alive. This act one closer is Wicked’s crown jewel and secret weapon: even if everything else is lacklustre, you can’t dim its shine.

In this production, relative newcomer Sheridan Adams plays Elphaba, which means the iconic song is hers to tackle, and it feels as though she spends the first act warming up for it, her performance on embers. But on opening night, once she settled into Defying Gravity, she had it and she knew it: when Elphaba sings a defiant, glorious, “It’s me!”, Adams let go and let it out; around me, audience members leaned forward in their seats. Later, in the second act’s No Good Deed, Adams was in full flame: a witch taking full ownership of her power.

Wicked works because it was built to work, and even if this production lacks a little power, it still has plenty to offer. It feels time – beyond time – for a revival with a new directorial approach to these witches and their stories, as has happened overseas. Brazil’s new take has earned real buzz among theatre fans, and it’s a little intoxicating to think about what else we could do to remix this new classic. But for this new remounting of the old faithful original, 20 years on? Don’t fight it. Sit back, relax and trust the process. It still defies gravity.