Theatre Review: Wicked (Lyric Theatre, HKAPA)
Yesterday, I was at the Wicked Media Call event at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA), and Lunchbox Theatrical Productions Founder and Chief Executive James Cundall was there to make a welcome speech to the press, as well as to introduce the cast and creative team of the international tour production.
When Mr Cundall said that this very production now showing in Hong Kong is the best version among the five others he saw, you would think that was just a respectable compliment.
He was telling the truth though.
When I saw it last night at the Lyric Theatre, I could never imagine that my first Wicked experience might probably be the best and the last, because one would not like to wake up from a sweet dream.
Based on the best-selling novel by Gregory Maguire, a re-imagination of the characters in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Wicked has been a global phenomenon since its premiere in 2003 on Broadway. The story and friendship between Elphaba, the soon Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the soon Good Witch of the North, has been praised by tons and tons of theatregoers and lovers.
When Lunchbox announced that they were going to bring the original Joe Mantello’s Broadway production of the Stephen Schwartz musical to Hong Kong, it became the talk of the town. I have friends who are working actors just did not give in to the high ticket prices, and bought stall seats, because they said it is going to be a once-in-a-life-time experience.
To be honest, I have had a love-hate relationship with Wicked. My first experience of the material is the Tony Award performance of ‘Defying Gravity’ by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth back in 2004. After that, I was clicked by the music, and started to listen to the original Broadway cast album again and again.
However, once I had known the whole story as well as to watched some clips of the original Broadway cast, I suddenly felt that it is an over-rated Broadway show. It is not as bad as The Phantom of the Opera, but I can see the imbalance plot-lines between Act 1 and Act 2, and also the cheesiness of the mood it creates that personally a misfortune for such a material that can give potential gravity among the characters.
This is the reason why I have tried to avoid seeing it, even when I was in London and on Broadway several times when I could not guarantee the quality of the cast.
But now I am proud to say that, this international touring production of Wicked is probably going to be the best version ever, even though I have not seen any other versions live, and also a piece that really is going to stay within the audience after leaving the theatre.
With the full production without cutting one single set and prop, designed by Eugene Lee, Wicked is a banquet of spectacles, with flies and lighting, designed by Kenneth Posner, coming in and out for seamless scene changes, as well as lavish costumes, designed by Susan Hilferty, made with spot-on craftmanship. They all make the audience immerse into the world of Oz.
Never could one imagine that for this particular international tour, Mr Schwartz and Mr Mantello actually went back to their baby and revised it for new sequences. The result is beyond high-standard with this new vibrant but talented cast directly from the UK.
I have to give credit to the resident director of the production Leigh Constantine, who, with her background in choreography, updated the show to the audience after 13 years. The staging and dance movements are very uplifting, and some of the directions are way more to my taste than the original.
I do need to say that the imbalance of the book is still observed. There is a rush of storylines in Act 2 with a book, written by Winnie Holzman, so ambitious to try and fill up the plot-holes without much time to develop. However, I actually can see pass it this time. I can imagine if is not this production, I will still be disappointed with the experience and feel a bit lack after the curtain call. This is not the case when I was siting at the stalls in the Lyric Theatre.
All because the quality of the cast really surpasses the shortcomings of the material. Jacqueline Hughes plays Elphaba, the kind-hearted green-skinned witch who is misunderstood by others as a wicked person. Miss Hughes is an alumnus of the Wicked family since 2011, who started as a swing of the West End show.
It is clear that Miss Hughes’s reputation comes from her groundbreaking voice. Several pinnacle songs in the musical, previously sung by Miss Menzel, are transcended through Miss Hughe’s voice with lucid phrasings. All the high notes are belted with subsequent support and stamina. Her ‘Defying Gravity’ as well as ‘No Good Deed’ are just exhilarating.
Carly Anderson plays Glinda, and as her Wicked debut, she has done an exceptional job. Trained in Arts Educational School, Miss Anderson is going to be a rising star. Her operatic singing is natural and comfortable to the ear, eventually giving Miss Anderson a demanding presence on stage.
It is a shame that Wicked does not give a lot of solo singing to Fiyero, played by Bradley Jaden, for the actor to thrive more, unlike his previous resumé as Enjolas in Les Misérable, but once he opens his mouth during ‘As Long As You’re Mine’, it proves that Mr Jaden has an outstanding voice.
And with the performance of the three, here is why I can see pass the shortcomings in Act 2. All three actors give weight to the ending. Not to be shadowed by the predecessors of these iconic roles, all three actors are able to give new readings to the characters.
Miss Hughes’s Elphaba is exceptionally fierce in a way of being a heroine. When I see her first throw of her book to the ground, I suddenly see a heroine in a Greek tragedy. Her anger is straightforward, and her reactions to things are also given with no remorse. It is risky to make Elphaba less lovable to the audience, but I do can see that her unlovable actually justify her ending as an outcast with a bit of bittersweet.
Miss Anderson gives an honest portrait of Glinda. This supposed-selfish narcissist has a lovable side. Her moment of the night is ‘Popular’ where Glinda teaches Elphaba how to be popular. It is easy to turn Glinda into a person that makes the audience feel annoyed by her, but Miss Anderson is able to keep the quirkiness and the full-of-herself-attitude of Glinda with a fresh of loyalty to Elphaba. Her fight with Elphaba in front of Dorothy’s house suddenly becomes clear that she is not fighting for her own cause but a reflection of her disappointment towards her friend.
Mr Jaden’s Fiyero channels a bit of Aaron Tveit’s rendition, but without Mr Tveit’s cocky attitude towards the character. Yes, Fiyero is a blue blood, but Mr Jaden, also with his honesty, gives Fiyero a clean slate of innocence, a person who really can see pass people or species other than his own kind, instead of being obliged to it and then turns his stance suddenly. Fiyero is good and kind from the beginning to the end, and his ending just makes the audience feel emotional.
It is this type of novel but detailed acting work that I can see it on stage makes me happy for the experience. Nothing is better than to see honest performances that gives the material a new life. And not to mention the chorus work of this production is exceptionally world-class. Never have I seen such energetic, well-calculated and performed numbers by such sky-limit standard ensemble.
I am not joking. I have seen shows on Broadway and at West End which were already very good with high standard performing work, but this is exceptional. It is like seeing the best of the best performers in the UK now performing in Hong Kong. Their ‘One Short Day’ is breathtaking. Even with the complex staging and spectacular lighting design, the chorus’ giving and unlimited energy have not scaled down a bit. The high level of engagement is just rare. I wonder if I will see such showmanship ever again.
But among all, Mr Schwartz’s music is still the star of the production. After 13 years, the songs are still touching and very catchy that I think it will last for another 13 years. Musical director David Rose did a fantastic work for controlling the music for the Lyric Theatre that the audience can feel the gigantic orchestration of the epic score without override the performers. The audience will definitely remember the music, and will singing the songs while leaving the theatre.
All and all, this production of Wicked is like a dream, a sweet dream that even though it will end, you will remember it for the rest of your life.
Wicked (UK/International Tour)
A Lunchbox Theatrical Productions Presentation
Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts
Extended to 22nd January 2017