Reviewed by Matt Markham
Editor, Ashburton Guardian
As someone who has never cared much for the Wizard of Oz, the prospect of a stage show based entirely on the untold story of the witches of the same imaginary land left me feeling a little apprehensive.
The process of munchkins, men made from both tin and straw and an afraid lion all mixed in together with a girl in red slippers never really piqued my attention growing up and so I headed to the Isaac Theatre Royal on Saturday night for the second showing of Showbiz Christchurch’s latest production, Wicked with some strongly mixed emotions.
Knowing there was some incredibly talented Mid Canterbury faces in the cast had eased my apprehension somewhat and within two minutes of the curtain rising I found myself captivated, intrigued and sitting on the edge of my seat enjoying every moment.
The world-renowned show, that has been a hit across the globe for a decade now tells the untold story of an unlikely but profound friendship between two girls who first meet as sorcery students at Shiz University: the blonde and very popular Glinda and a misunderstood green girl named Elphaba.
Following an encounter with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, their friendship reaches a crossroads and their lives take very different paths. Glinda’s unflinching desire for popularity sees her seduced by power while Elphaba’s determination to remain true to herself, and to those around her, has unexpected and shocking consequences for her future.
Their extraordinary adventures in Oz sees them fulfil their destinies as Glinda The Good and the Wicked Witch of the West.
Nothing is left unturned here by a star-studded line up of directors and their staff, from the programmes sold at the front door, to the shoes worn by those on stage, everything beams professionalism and brilliance and the entire production team from the set design, choreography, costumes and music were fully deserving of every plaudit thrown their way.
As luck would have it, former Ashburton lass, and NASDA graduate Jane Leonard was on one of her alternate nights of filling the lead role of the green-skinned Elphaba, playing alongside Wellington’s Ellie Neal who fulfilled the role of Glinda.
The pair were, quite simply a match made in heaven. They bounced off each other with the right amount of enthusiasm and humility that you’d expect from such a high-end show and were the deserving shining lights of the night.
It is hard to imagine the show without these two playing their respective roles.
I sympathise with Leonard’s character somewhat, because I too am green. Green-eyed with envy at the incredible talent this former Ashburton girl possesses.
She commanded the stage, her presence unwavering and demanding and her vocal performance was nigh on perfect.
The show’s most well-known song, Defying Gravity is somewhat of a double-edged sword in the fact that it is such a tune that it’s hard not to enjoy, but equally as difficult vocally and requires some skill to perform.
Leonard’s effort, was quite simply put, perfection wrapped up in green and black. So much so there was the sense of a standing ovation as the curtain fell down on the first act with her powerful tones ringing through the ears of the packed house.
The ovation didn’t come then, but it did as she made her curtain call with the large Ashburton contingent in the crowd making sure that others there new just how proud they were of her effort.
Leonard wasn’t the only local on stage though.
The experienced Greta Casey-Solly made an appearance as an interestingly attired mid-wife and her own usual manner exuded confidence and power while young rising star Jack Hanrahan was a prominent figure in the ensemble showing up numerous times with his usual amount of flair and skill.
The only gripe I can muster, and it is a very minimal one, is that at times the abrupt loudness of the very brilliant band drowned out some soloists, and understand their lyrics became a little more difficult than it should have.
This was more an issue in the opening act and only for certain performers (not Leonard) but seemed to have been ironed out by the time the curtain rose again for the second act.
So, take it from this former Oz-Doubter, that Wicked is a show not to be missed.
At around $60 a ticket, it’s well worth the trip up the road for a night of good, quality entertainment and one I’ve got no hesitation in recommending to anyone.
If you’ve ever been to a Showbiz Christchurch performance and been blown away by the on-stage performance, you’re seeing just a small fraction of the local talent that culminates in an end product of this calibre.
The 80-year-old community theatrical society stages three productions each year. The Saunders & Co 2018 season commences at the Isaac Theatre Royal with Wicked from 6-21 April; followed by Broadway Hitmen, a concert of Cole Porter and Andrew Lloyd Webber hits, from 13-15 July; and is completed by Les Misérables opening on 14 September.
Up to 100 people can be involved behind the scenes in just one show, volunteers who put hundreds of unpaid hours into their roles.
In Wicked’s on stage performance, you will see two leads (played by four actors on alternate nights), six principal roles, 16 ensemble cast and 15 dancers, with 16 backing vocalists and 18 orchestral performers in the pit. Backstage however, 100 equally important parts make it all come together.
Vicki Morris-Williamson has been volunteering for Showbiz Christchurch for 19 years and is part of a team responsible for ensuring hats and costumes are made show ready and fit the brief of Director Stephen Robertson.
Successful Broadway shows like Wicked, complete national and international tours before the rights to stage them are given to community theatre groups. Showbiz Christchurch is the first in New Zealand to get these rights to stage Wicked.
“The Showbiz Christchurch performance is a whole new production,” Vicki says.
“Stephen creates the best shows he can and is completely invested in bringing something special to the stage. He visualises exactly what he wants down to the smallest detail. We then start with the bones of the costumes, adding and improving everything, making it our own unique show.”
Vicki is currently living in a sea of green, as she works diligently to overhaul hats that came from an international production and create new ones, for the Emerald City townsfolk in Wicked. Just about every member of the cast is on stage for this scene and every costume has a hat. That’s 35 hats, each representing Vicki’s work to realise Stephen’s vision for it.
Vicki wears many hats herself in the months that go into each performance. She is involved in costuming, pre-setting (planning set positioning), pack in (putting props up in the theatre), then the in-theatre rehearsals, before the run of shows.
“I warn my hubby heading into show season, that he won’t see me for three months,” she laughs. But working around a full-time job, it’s not an exaggeration.
It’s a family affair for her though. Vicki’s son James (then 12) joined her in her first production, in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Her daughter Jenna – a professional dancer from the New Zealand School of Dance – made her Showbiz Christchurch debut at 19 and will be performing in Wicked when it starts in April.
Craig Given has never had the desire to soak up the spotlight and perform on stage.
Instead you will find the percussionist hidden away in the dark orchestra pit of a theatre juggling a spectrum of quirky instruments.
“We have got to blend into the background, we have to be invisible, which is quite impossible when you are waving you arms all over the place,” he said.
Next month, Given, 39, will take on what is both a percussionist’s dream and nightmare, playing nearly 60 instruments in Wicked, Showbiz Christchurch’s first production of the year.
Wicked is one of the largest grossing musicals in Broadway history and tells the back story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Although Given has been playing percussion for Showbiz for more than 20 years, he said Wicked is one of the highlights of his musical career.
“There is so much diversity in the music . . . it ebbs and flows. There is African influences, orchestral and jazz – all sorts of different stylistic pieces,” he said. Finding the instruments required to create the thematic music has been as much of a challenge as playing it.
For many of the instruments, Given has either had to track them down from overseas or build them himself.
“I have had to make a few instruments; there is one called a bird-flapper, which is sections of balsa wood glued together which represents the sounds of birds flapping,” he said.
Other unique instruments which did not exist or had to be tracked down overseas included a bell plate, trine, talking drum, nut-shaker and wand.
Given said some of the music ranges from very earthy to high, sparkly sounds.
One of the strangest instruments used to represent a character in the show is the waterphone, which is often used in horror films.
“It is a bizarre instrument – you have probably heard nothing else like it,” Given said.
He has been looking for the instruments and preparing for the show since December.
Given said while living in New Zealand means performers are exposed to a bunch of shows, it is also difficult because the country is isolated.
“I’ve talked to guys overseas in Broadway and doing productions in America and got a lot of photos and videos from them to help research and fabricate the instruments,” he said.
As for playing the music, Given said the most difficult part is the choreography of getting from one instrument to the next.
“If you have a moment of inattention, you will get yourself into all sorts of trouble,” he said.
Given said he is looking forward to passing his knowledge about the instruments onto other percussionists as the show is performed by companies around New Zealand.
We know you have been wanting to know so here it is… the Wicked Leads’ performance schedule.
Heather Lee Wilcock (Elphaba) & Rebekah Head (Galinda)
- Friday, 6 April, 7.30pm
- Sunday, 8 April, 4.00pm
- Wednesday, 11 April, 7.30pm
- Friday, 13 April, 7.30pm
- Saturday, 14 April, 7.30pm
- Tuesday, 17 April, 7.30pm
- Thursday, 19 April, 7.30pm
- Saturday, 21 April, 2.00pm
Jane Leonard (Elphaba) & Ellie Neal (Galinda)
- Saturday, 7 April, 7.30pm
- Tuesday, 10 April, 7.30pm
- Thursday, 12 April, 7.30pm
- Saturday, 14 April, 2.00pm
- Sunday, 15 April, 4.00pm
- Wednesday, 18 April, 7.30pm
- Friday, 20 April, 7.30pm
- Saturday, 21 April, 7.30pm
Please note: Showbiz Christchurch reserves the right to amend the Leads’ performance schedule should circumstances dictate a change.
There is no more exciting way for one of Christchurch’s oldest musical theatre societies to commence its 80th year than by staging one of the most popular Broadway shows of all time. Showbiz Christchurch commences The Saunders & Co 2018 season at the Isaac Theatre Royal on 6 April with the New Zealand theatre company premiere of Wicked.
“Every time we ask our patrons which shows they would like to see, Wicked always comes out on top,” says Showbiz Christchurch General Manager, Michael Bayly.
Wicked tells the untold story of an unlikely but profound friendship between two witches who first meet as sorcery students at Shiz University: the blonde and popular Glinda, originally played by Kristen Chenowith, and a misunderstood green girl named Elphaba, played by Idina Menzel in the Broadway Production.
Showbiz auditions for the lead roles began in September, with full company auditions following in October. “They proved to be extremely popular,” says Bayly, attracting over 163 performers from throughout Canterbury, Wellington and Auckland, as well as performers based in Melbourne and London.
Competition was intense for the coveted roles of Elphaba and Glinda. “Due to the demands of these lead roles, the audition panel selected two performers for each,” Bayly said. “It is with great pleasure we can now announce that Elphaba will be played on alternate performances by Jane Leonard and Heather Lee Wilcock, and Glinda will be played by Rebekah Head and Ellie Neal.
Christchurch based performer Jane Leonard is already a favourite with Showbiz audiences. She played Meg Giry in The Phantom of the Opera (2015); the mistress in Evita (2016); a diva in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and a featured soloist in An Evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein Classics (2017).
“When I received the phone call telling me I had landed the role of Elphaba I had just woken up, so it was very much a case of ‘pinch me, I think I’m still dreaming’,” explains Leonard. “Elphaba is one of those roles that in a beautiful way confirms and solidifies your abilities and hard work as an actor, and for that I am grateful.”
Heather Lee Wilcock is an Auckland based performer and who won the NAPTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Tracy Turnblad in the North Shore Music Theatre production of Hairspray. Wilcock has twice played the lead role in Evita.
Another performer figuratively pinching herself is Ellie Neal, who saw the touring Australian production in 2013 and has dreamed of performing one of the lead roles ever since.
Neal is a graduate of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School and the Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute. She played the lead in The Court Theatre’s 2016 production of Legally Blonde and runs her own theatre company, Vision Theatre NZ in Wellington. Wicked will also be her first production with Showbiz.
Now based in Auckland, former Christchurch performer Rebekah Head will also play Glinda. Since graduating from NASDA in 2014, Head has been busy performing throughout New Zealand with NZ Playhouse, Whoa! Studio, Auckland Fringe and The Court Theatre. Wicked will be her first production for Showbiz.
Head sums up her delight at landing the role of Glinda by quoting a song from the show: “I couldn’t be happier!” She adds “I’m also super excited to be playing a role that was originated by an actress who is under five feet, just like me.”
The Showbiz production will be directed by New Zealand musical theatre heavyweights Stephen Robertson and Richard Marrett, and choreographed by Robertson and Glen Harris.
The remaining principal roles, ensemble, dancers and backing vocalists will be announced on Tuesday 7th November.