Sunday, 22 May 2016

Wicked - Stray Cats Theatre Company & Mandurah Performing Arts Centre (21 May 2016)

It was interesting to watch the response to the announcement last year that the amateur rights to Wicked had been made available. In many quarters there was much excitement that a beloved show was now able to be performed by community theatre groups around the country. This was matched by a healthy scepticism that it could be given justice with all the technical and vocal demands. A professional production had also been recently staged in Perth at the Crown Theatre with the incomparable Jemma Rix as Elphaba and Suzie Mathers as Glinda (who has now joined the West End cast). A tough act to follow.

It was not surprising that Stray Cats Theatre Company was to be the first to mount the production in WA. Director Karen Francis had access to a suitable venue – the Boardwalk Theatre in Mandurah – and had demonstrated the ability to consistently mount large scale, crowd pleasing musicals. Still, having seen the show in Melbourne in 2014 and last year in Perth, I was intrigued how Francis was going to tackle any number of challenges with the staging of such a dizzifyingly complex production.

Any doubts I had were soon put to rest as I walked into the theatre. There was indeed a dragon perched above the stage which came to life as the opening notes were played. The familiar cogs and clock design was apparent in the wings and along the railing to the orchestra pit. The map of Oz was projected onto a scrim. 

As the show progressed there was clever use of scrims, various backdrops, and lighting to facilitate scene transitions. The Bubble Galinda descends on during the opening scene was well rendered and the Wizard’s big talking head was impressively done. Most satisfying was that the first act showstopper, Defying Gravity, where Elphaba rises above Ozians and the audience alike was effectively recreated. Sure, there wasn’t the whizzbangery of its professional forebear but proficient and clever stagecraft and design made for a most credible substitute. My immediate impression was that a lot of time, thought, skill and resources had gone into the construction of the show. That was most appreciated.

This was reinforced by the attention to detail in other elements – the trademark Stray Cats large ensemble was beautifully costumed with a wide range of colourful and quirky outfits; the lighting design took full advantage of the rig at MPAC that no other community theatre venue would be able to match; and the 19 piece orchestra, again of a scale and composition most would fail to accommodate, was excellent under conductor David Hicks. The sound balance was good, and the clarity of the lead vocals was especially strong. There was a little bit of microphone crackle on the odd occasion from secondary characters in movement but the sound design and execution was otherwise very good.

Of course, Wicked relies on the performance of its two leads and in Kimberley Harris (Elphaba) and Lisa Taylor (Glinda) the show had a winning combination that not only sang well but gave strong acting performances. Taylor played the annoyingly bubbly and over confident Glinda with deft comic timing and infectious enthusiasm. Her rendition of Popular was a highlight. Harris brought great acting chops to the ultimate outsider in Elphaba and belted out Defying Gravity in terrific style while being wistful in the softer I’m Not That Girl. They worked well together – Harris’s intensity bouncing off Taylor’s comic shtick – but it’s in the quieter moments where the rivalry turns to friendship that they are most convincing.

The male leads didn’t fare quite as well. Joshua Towns was a lanky and handsome Fiyero but Dancing Through Life lacked flair and felt more mechanical than anything. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see the complete transition from shallow rebel to committed ally of Elphaba. The storm that ravaged Perth caused a showstopper of its own as the power went out halfway through the second act. Erik Bunch played Dr. Dillamond for laughs and was prone to telegraphing every phrase with grandiose hand gestures. This undercut any sense of pathos for the character. The Wizard himself, Peter Sydney-Smith, also had a tendency to overplay to the audience especially during Wonderful which jarred next to the focus displayed by Harris in that sequence.

Of the other characters, Alyssa Burton, played the larger-than-life Madame Morrible with style while Cassandra Power came into her own as Nessarose at the start of the second act as her now Governess goes through a raft of emotions from being able to walk to reconnecting with Boq to ultimately losing him due to her own impulsiveness. It teetered on being overwrought but ultimately was a strong emotional sequence. Boq himself, played by Braeden Geuer, was a likable presence though the estrangement from Nessarose caught me a little by surprise this time round.

Mother Nature unfortunately had the last word as it proved more powerful than any stage magic. The power outage caused a premature end to the matinee and led to the evening show being cancelled. In response, an extra show was announced for 10am on Sunday for those ticket holders who missed the full show or evening performance.

While I wasn’t able to avail myself of this opportunity what I saw and heard up until that point was a good production of the mega-hit musical. It handled the technical challenges in style and featured two strong performances in the lead roles. It played to Francis’ strengths – big set-pieces with a large ensemble; and was well played by the orchestra. It was refreshing to see the skill on display across all departments to bring such a production to life which is testament to the talent pool in Perth. 

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