Once

Princess Theatre, Melbourne, October 18 matinee

Madeleine Jones and Tom Parsons.  Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Jones and Tom Parsons. Photo: Jeff Busby

Once is a lovely, wistful little musical that could charm the birds from the trees, so it could. It certainly had the audience entranced at the performance I saw.

Based on John Carney’s low-budget 2006 film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also wrote the songs, it maintains the bittersweet, understated feel of the movie but has enough added brio to really shine on stage.

Winner of eight Tony Awards including Best Musical when it opened on Broadway in 2012, the Australian production is co-produced by John Frost with the Melbourne Theatre Company.

As soon as you enter the auditorium you are swept up into the world of the piece. Several performers are already on stage making music and dancing, joined by various members of the audience who hang around, drink in hand, as if at an impromptu ceilidh in an Irish pub. From there we are into the action before we know it.

Set in Dublin, Once tells the story of an Irish Guy and Czech Girl (we never learn their names). They meet when she passes him busking on the street, howling a song in anger and pain. She recognises some kind of kindred spirit in him. Both are musicians (she plays piano) and both are dealing with painful, unresolved relationships.

Disillusioned, he is on the verge of giving up music but over the next five days she badgers and cajoles him into recording an album. He meets her mother, daughter and friends – who support him on the album – and as they bond over music, love quietly blooms between them. But it is not destined to be.

Bob Crowley’s set design is an old-style pub with walls covered by framed, tarnished mirrors. A hidden walkway over the top is used for brief scenes when the Guy and Girl escape town. Other than that different locations are suggested with little more than the odd prop moved quickly into place.

The lo-fi nature of the staging adds to the charm. The busking scene segues in a hoover repair shop simply by someone pushing a vacuum cleaner across the stage to Girl, for example. It looks deceptively simple but director John Tiffany has done a brilliantly clever job of keeping the action flowing in ways that are inventive and often witty.

The direction is complemented by Steven Hoggett’s stunning movement – which isn’t dancing in the ‘big-production-number’ way of many musicals. Instead it combines dancing that emerges directly from the story with more gestural movement that feels deeply imbued with emotion.

Tiffany and Hoggett collaborated on Black Watch, the superb National Theatre of Scotland production seen at the 2008 Sydney Festival, and their work is just as special here.

The cast of Once.  Photo: Jeff Busby

The cast of Once. Photo: Jeff Busby

The songs, which combine a Celtic folksy feel with light pop-rock and gorgeous ballads, spring naturally from the action and seduce with their infectious, lilting rhythms. They include the haunting Academy Award-winning song Falling Slowly.

The fact that the music is performed by the cast, all of whom play instruments (fiddle, guitar, cello, mandolin, drums etc) and most of whom rarely leave the stage, also adds to the charm of the show.

Enda Walsh’s book manages to include sentiment without becoming sentimental and offsets it with lots of humour, from the straight-talking bluntness of Girl to the slapstick humour of her manic drummer friend. When Guy sings a song in the pub, introducing it as one that he wrote, someone in the crowd groans “Aw, fuck.”

The use of surtitles is also cleverly done. Most of the dialogue between the Czech characters is conducted in English with Czech surtitles, but occasionally they speak Czech with English surtitles. It’s a neat touch and used in just the right way.

The production has been beautifully cast. Madeleine Jones (best known in Sydney as a straight actor for companies including Sport for Jove and pantsguys) is gorgeous as Girl, underpinning her pugnacious, straight-speaking, feistiness with plenty of heart. Her comic timing is great and she has a lovely voice.

Tom Parsons (who is a British actor) captures Guy’s lanky, slightly daggy, shaggy quality but also conveys his soulfulness and pain, and he sings with a heartfelt rawness. The chemistry between them is tangible and when they sing and make music together it’s magic.

There’s a terrific supporting cast. Amy Lehpamer exudes great energy and zesty charisma as the fiddle-playing, sassy Reza (one of Girl’s Czech friends). Colin Dean is very funny as the grouchy music shop owner Billy who hankers after Girl, as is Susan-ann Walker as Girl’s mother, Brent Hill as Czech drummer Svec, and Anton Berezin as the bank manager with musical aspirations.

The ending is bittersweet. The unfulfilled love story gives the piece an air of melancholy but both Girl and Guy have been reinvigorated by their relationship, while the friendships that blossom – even between the initially hostile Billy and the bank manager – are uplifting. Somehow it all feels real: some things work out, some don’t but that’s life.

A paen to the power of music and the importance of friendship, Once creeps gently up on you and plays with your heartstrings. I must admit I didn’t expect to be so moved by it but I went home enchanted.

Once is at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until December 31. Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au

Howie the Rookie

Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins. Photo: Kathy Luu

Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins. Photo: Kathy Luu

Irish writer Mark O’Rowe spins a gripping, blood-and-brawl yarn in the two intersecting 40-minute monologues that make up his 1999 play Howie the Rookie, which feels slightly fantastical and yet profoundly, horribly human.

Brought to brilliant life by Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins, the production directed by Toby Schmitz packs a knockout punch.

Set in a tough, working-class suburb of Dublin in the late 1990s, the Howie Lee (Henry) begins the tale. He is, he tells us, out to bash up the Rookie Lee (same surname, but no relation) for infecting a mate’s mattress, where he sometimes sleeps, with scabies. So when his mum asks him to babysit his five-year old brother the Mouse Lee, he tells her in no uncertain terms where to get off.

When the Rookie (Hawkins) takes up the story, he reveals that he is in considerably more trouble than a bashing at the hands of the Howie and his mates. He has inadvertently killed the Siamese fighting fish belonging to the Ladyboy, a brutal gangster, and has to raise a substantial amount of cash if he wants to keep his kneecaps in tact, as a result of which an unlikely alliance forms between the Howie and the Rookie.

O’ Rowe’s use of language is exhilarating. Writing in a vibrant, robust, vital style that sings with a kind of blistering, slangy poetry (words like “slappercopper” for police woman, for example), he creates such vivid, visceral images you feel you are there.

The story is peopled with eccentric characters. The Howie is a bit of a dag and useless when it comes to chatting up girls, unlike the good-looking Rookie.

Then there’s the Avalanche, a mountainous vision in white ski pants who lusts after the Howie (who has bedded her once) and now keeps appearing at inopportune times like when he’s taking a leak.

The Howie’s friends include Flan Dingle, who has dreadful BO, Ginger Boy with blazing red hair and the Avalanche’s towering brother (“six feet tall, built like a human white puddin’), who may not be quite the full quid. As for the Ladyboy, he is rumored to have three rows of teeth like a shark.

A dark, ugly comedy full of booze, piss, blood, biff and violence, it’s very funny – until it suddenly gets all too real.

Schmitz – who is currently based in South Africa where he is playing a featured role in the pirate TV series Black Sails – returned to Australia briefly to direct Howie the Rookie.

Lisa Mimmocchi has designed him the perfect, minimal set: a black box space with nothing in it except two chairs for the storytellers, a tiny up-ended chair in the corner (the meaning of which is explained in the course of the tale) and a pile of beer bottle tops. The tracksuits she chooses for the two storytellers are also spot-on, while the shaved pattern in Hawkins’ hair is an inspired touch.

Schmitz, who performed at the Old Fitz several times early in his career, uses the space exceptionally well. His decision to have both men there throughout the two monologues is a canny one, for starters. They sit, sipping on a beer, while the other talks, occasionally reacting and making eye contact, but mostly just present. But it somehow makes it feel more real to see the other key person in the story.

Schmitz also uses the bottle tops, just twice, to send a jolt through the audience. Alexander Berlage’s lighting and Jeremy Silver’s sound complete the picture perfectly.

Henry and Hawkins are both excellent; Henry capturing the insecurity beneath the loutish Howie’s almost pathetic bravado, Hawkins also conveying the vulnerability beneath the Rookie’s far cooler façade. By the end of the piece we have come to care about both of them and the denouement is surprisingly moving.

The two actors do a pretty good job with the Oirish accent too (dialect coach, Gabrielle Rogers).

Howie the Rookie is a tough little gem, which sits perfectly in the tiny, 50-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitz. Recommended.

Howie the Rooks runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre until October 25. Bookings: www.sitco.net.au or 1300 307 264

Sondheim on Sondheim

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

In 1994, New York magazine ran a cover story about Stephen Sondheim, which asked “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” (Not in the headline as suggested here, apparently, but in the table of contents. No matter.)

Is he God? Hell yes. In musical theatre terms the man’s a genius.

Hence the self-deprecating, comic song God, which James Lapine coaxed him to write for Sondheim on Sondheim in which he pokes fun at being worshipped and at his (ill-deserved) reputation for writing art songs without heart or melodies.

Lapine conceived and directed Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the revered composer/lyricist. Originally produced on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, it combines specially recorded interviews with Sondheim and archival footage with live performances of numbers from many of his musicals, along with some songs that didn’t end up making the cut.

The show is now being staged in Sydney by independent musical theatre company Squabbalogic, whose growing reputation jumped to the next level recently with superb productions of Carrie and The Drowsy Chaperone.

No wonder expectations were high for this, their latest production.

Sondheim on Sondheim is a winning concept but it needs exceptional performers to really make it fly. Act I doesn’t quite cut it here but it comes good in Act II.

The interviews with Sondheim are a constant delight. It’s thrilling to hear him talk so articulately about why he likes to write for neurotic people, the difference between poetry and lyrics, why A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum went through three different opening numbers, along with personal things like his fraught relationship with his mother, a touching admission he would love to have had children, and the fact that he didn’t have a committed relationship until he was 60.

Sondheim tragics will know most of it already but it’s fascinating stuff. And it’s intriguing to see not just the recent interviews but others from across six decades of his life.

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

Mind you, it sets up a real challenge for the performers. Rather than being presented chronologically or show by show, Sondheim on Sondheim jumps around, choosing songs in response to the interview clip (though the segues into the musical numbers aren’t always seamless). It’s hard to invest the songs with the same emotional depth when they’re performed out of context and the show moves at such pace that it’s doubly difficult for the performers to move between characters and emotional states convincingly.

On top of that, we have heard Sondheim’s material interpreted by any number of people at the very top of their game not only in the musicals but in countless cabaret shows and charity concerts. We know how extraordinary the songs can be.

Director Jay James-Moody has assembled a strong cast – Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Monique Sallé, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – but the songs don’t always sit completely in the pocket for all of them vocally.

In Act I, they perform with great energy. The performances are solid but the songs rarely soar or touch you emotionally, while Sallé’s choreography feels over busy at times. But Act II fares better.

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson. Photo:  Michael Francis

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson in Opening Doors from Merrily We Roll Along. Photo: Michael Francis

Highlights for me include Krizak’s Smile, Girls, in which she brings just the right razzle-dazzle to a number cut from Gypsy; Opening Doors about young, would-be songwriters at the start of their career from Merrily We Roll Along performed by Erickson, Johnson and Sallé; Franklin Shepherd Inc. also from Merrily given a suitably manic performance by Johnson; Epiphany from Sweeney Todd sung by Phillip Lowe; and Children Will Listen performed by the Company.

The set by James-Moody works a treat. Suspended strings of scrunched up manuscript paper, like rejected versions of songs, create a backdrop through which we glimpse the eight-piece orchestra led by Hayden Barltrop.

On stage, there are eight square black stools and tiny tables, which are moved around in different configurations. It’s simple but effective.

The show assumes, I think, that the audience will have at least some knowledge of and love for Sondheim. For those not familiar with his musicals it’s a lot to get your head around (it runs for over two-and-a-half hours) but it certainly showcases his dazzling versatility and the extraordinary wealth of his body of work.

There were a couple of clunky moments from the band on opening night and the sound mix was a bit loud at times but overall it’s impressive musically.

Sondheim on Sondheim takes time to ignite and the songs are always as spine-tinglingly moving or poignant as they can be but there’s much to enjoy in it. For a small indie company it’s quite an achievement. I’m not sure it plays to Squabbalogic’s strengths in the way that many of their previous shows have done but it’s still worth seeing.

Sondheim on Sondheim plays at the Seymour Centre until October 18. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

Not a Launch: Hayes Theatre Co 2015

Hayes Theatre Co, September 29

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“It’s not a launch,” said David Campbell. “It’s just a release of information.”

Whatever it was, it was a great way to introduce the Hayes Theatre Co’s program for the first half of 2015 with performers on hand to sing numbers from the shows featured, and to give us a preview of the final shows for 2014.

British director Neil Rutherford introduced Beyond Desire, the new musical for which he has written book and lyrics, with music by Kieran Drury, which will play at the Hayes from November 21 to December 13.

Beyond Desire is an Edwardian murder mystery, inspired in part by E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, which Rutherford described as “Downton Abbey meets Hamlet”. It will feature contemporary music inspired by the period, with influences of Elgar and Debussy. The score will be performed by a six-piece orchestra.

Nancye Hayes, who plays a housekeeper, sang an amusing number about family secrets, in costume complete with a tray of tea and sandwiches. It will be the first time Hayes has performed at the venue named after her. After that performance, I can’t wait.

The 2015 season begins in January with a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal by Geelong’s Doorstep Arts (January 8 – February 1). Introduced by the company’s founding director Darylin Ramondo, the production will feature Natalie O’Donnell as Diana, the suburban mother with worsening bipolar disorder and delusional episodes.

The cast will also include Alex Rathgeber and Anthony Harkin. O’Donnell performed I Miss the Mountains in which Diana sings about missing the dizzy heights of her non-medicated state.

In February, Enda Markey produces Blood Brothers (see related feature) with a fabulous cast led by Helen Dallimore, Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox. Running February 6 – March 8, Dallimore gave a taste of things to come with a medley of Easy Terms and Tell Me It’s Not True.

In May, Neil Gooding presents Dogfight with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Peter Duncan, all still in their 20s.

Based on the 1991 film starring River Phoenix, it tells the edgy story of three young men on their way to Vietnam who attend a “dogfight” the night before they leave at which they compete to bring the ugliest date, out of which emerges an unusual love story.

The show premiered off-Broadway to generally good reviews in 2012 and was staged at London’s Southwark Theatre in August to more mixed reviews.

Johanna Allen, who will play the prostitute Marcie, sang a number called Pretty Funny, performed in the show by the leading lady Rose. Dogfight runs May 1– 31. Gooding said that Pasek & Paul will hopefully come to Australia towards the end of the season and conduct some workshops and masterclasses.

Meanwhile, Miracle City by Max Lambert and the late Nick Enright plays at the Hayes from October 17 to November 16. The keenly anticipated revival of the musical, which had a brief work-in-progress season at Sydney Theatre Company in 1996, will be a brand new show directed by Darren Yap.

Described by Campbell as “a shitload of fun”, Miracle City is inspired by US televangelists Jimmy and Tammy Bakker. Telling the story of the Truswell family, it is set in real time during a live-to-air evangelical television show.

Blazey Best, Mike McLeish, Hilary Cole and Cameron Holmes who play the Truswell family performed the song Miracle City, a very funny, jaunty, gospel hoedown in which they sing about the Christian theme park they are building. The song was the first they wrote, said Lambert, but didn’t make it into the original show.

It was a spectacular way to end the evening and a fantastic teaser for Miracle City.

Sweet Charity, the Hayes’ inaugural, sellout production, which won three Helpmann Awards, will tour in 2015. A Canberra season has already been announced for February with other dates to be confirmed.

Details can be found at www.hayestheatre.com.au

The Last Confession

Theatre Royal, September 24

David Suchet and the cast of The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

David Suchet and the cast of The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

In 1978, Pope John Paul I died just 33 days into his papacy. When it emerged that on the eve of his death, he had told several cardinals hostile to his planned reforms that he was removing them from Rome, there were suspicions of foul play.

The mystery has all the makings of a fascinating drama but The Last Confession by Roger Crane, an American lawyer and first-time playwright, is a rather stolid, old-fashioned play, which only fires intermittently.

The main draw-card is that it stars David Suchet (of Poirot fame) – and he doesn’t disappoint.

Suchet plays Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who engineers the election of his friend Cardinal Albino Luciani to the papacy and then suffers a crisis of faith after his death.

Directed by Jonathan Church on William Dudley’s grandiose set, the play starts slowly, with a long stretch of un-dramatic dialogue taking an age to set things up. It only comes to life when Luciani becomes Pope and locks horns with intransigent, conservative members of the Roman Curia.

Benelli’s investigation into the Pope’s death in Act II is also lively. But the play frequently gets bogged down in long, wordy debates.

Fortunately the international cast of 20 are all extremely good. Suchet is a charismatic presence and uses his rich, velvety voice to great effect in a powerful, if slightly mannered, performance.

Richard O’Callaghan is also a standout as the gentle, humble, morally upright yet determined “people’s Pop” John Paul I who wants to bring the Catholic Church into the 20th century.

The Last Confession offers a peek into the machinations of the Catholic Church and the corrupt power of the Vatican bank. With a shorter, sharper script it could be intriguing.

The Last Confession runs at Sydney’s Theatre Royal until October 12. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28

Blood Brothers at the Hayes

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The Lion King is now the top-selling musical of all time but only three musicals have played in London’s West End for more than 10,000 performances – and Blood Brothers is one of them.

Written by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), Blood Brothers ran there for more than 24 years, becoming London’s third longest-running show after The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.

There hasn’t been a professional production in Sydney for 20 years, but Blood Brothers is about to make a return, with Enda Markey producing it at the Hayes Theatre Co in February.

The show has attracted a top-drawer cast headed by Helen Dallimore (Wicked in London, Legally Blonde) as Mrs Johnstone, Michael Cormick (Mamma Mia!) as the narrator, and Blake Bowden (South Pacific) and Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) as the twins Edward and Mickey.

The cast also includes Bronwyn Mulcahy as Mrs Lyons, Phillip Lowe as Mr Lyons, Christy Sullivan as Linda, Jamie Kristian as Sammy and Erin James as Donna Marie. Andrew Pole directs with Michael Tyack as musical director.

Blood Brothers began life in 1982 as a school play, before debuting as a musical in Liverpool the following year. It tells the story of fraternal twins separated at birth when their mother, Mrs Johnstone, cannot afford to keep them both.

Growing up just streets apart they become best friends, despite being divided by class, but fall for the same girl, with tragic results.

Boisterously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad with an authentic working class voice, the show is full of sweet, simple melodies that hit a nerve.

Blood Brothers was last staged in Sydney in 1994 with a cast including Delia Hannah and David Soul. A 1988 production starring Chrissie Amphlett is now part of Australian theatre folklore because a young Russell Crowe was sacked for head-butting Peter Cousens, his on-stage twin.

Markey has loved the show for yonks. “I saw it when I was nine and it was one of the most defining theatre-going experiences of my life,” he says.

In 1997, he worked on an Irish production as an assistant to Rebecca Storm, who played Mrs Johnstone.

“It’s such a great show. I believe that it’s among the top five musicals ever written in terms of the way it’s structured and its characters. There’s no fat on it. When I was looking for a project to produce I was thinking ‘what was the show that if someone else produced it I’d be devastated?’” says Markey.

Cormick, who plays the narrator, has seen the show three times. “The first was in London with Kiki Dee and David Soul,” he says.

“I remember walking out at interval thinking ‘this is fantastic’. But at the end I couldn’t speak for 10 minutes, I was that emotional. I thought then: ‘one day I would love to play the narrator.’”

Bowden has never seen the show live but was just as emotional when he watched a recording of it recently. “I got completely hooked,” he says. “I laughed the whole way through, it’s so funny, but I think I cried about three times as well.’

Dallimore auditioned for the show in London four years ago and saw it then.

“I loved it. It’s beautifully written. (Mrs Johnstone) is really a gift of a role, a bit of a bucket list role I think,” she says. “As a mother it’s going to be quite a harrowing experience to go through every night but there are a lot of laughs in it as well and she’s got a real warmth and humour.”

Markey, who is presenting it with a cast of nine and four musicians, believes that it will sit well in the intimate 100-seat Hayes Theatre.

“It was written for an intimate space, though not quite as intimate as this. (Russell) wrote it as a school play, then they expanded it for the Everyman in Liverpool, which was a 300 or 400-seater,” he says.

“It was only when it became a hit that they pumped a lot of air into it for the West End. So I think the Hayes brings it back more to where it started.”

The Hayes burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene in January with a stunning production of Sweet Charity, which won three Helpmann Awards including Best Director for Dean Bryant.

For the four leading players, the chance to perform in a musical at the Hayes was part of the appeal of Blood Brothers.

“It really is the hottest new spot and it felt like it happened overnight actually and that Sydney really embraced it,” says Bowden who performed his cabaret show Mario there recently.

Sweet Charity let everyone know that really you can do anything you want there, with The Drowsy Chaperone afterwards and all those cabaret shows. It’s a malleable venue that now has this street cred,” says Fox.

“I think it’s the perfect place for (Blood Brothers),” says Cormick. “I’ve been looking for a project to do there so when this came up I thought, ‘this is feel absolutely right on both levels.’ I think it’s perfect that it’s in a small, intimate theatre but this piece is very much about storytelling. You don’t need very much more than the actors.”

“It’s amazing how a different energy can transform a space: the emotional energy and passion of the people behind it,” says Dallimore. “It’s been there forever and it’s always been a great little space but it’s just got this magic in it now. There is a buzz as soon as you walk in.”

As a producer, Markey believes that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to the musical theatre scene.

“I think for larger musicals the Hayes is really important because it allows the industry to thrive and to nurture new talent and to be a little bit more daring. I think we really need it and as we’ve seen the public have just embraced it.”

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, February 6 – March 8, 2015. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28

Wicked

Capitol Theatre, September 25

Jemma Rix and Lucy Durack.  Photo by Jeff Busby

Jemma Rix and Lucy Durack. Photo by Jeff Busby

Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s phenomenally popular musical Wicked is back in Sydney on its 10th anniversary tour – and though the show took time to hit its mark on opening night, the audience still found it “thrillifying”, as audiences have been doing the world over since the show premiered on Broadway in 2003, grossing around $3 billion to date.

For the uninitiated, Wicked is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, telling the story of how two unlikely friends – the green-skinned misfit Elphaba and the perky, popular Galinda – become the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch Glinda.

Act I doesn’t feel as sharp as in the past, skimming along like the song “Dancing Through Life”, almost as if on autopilot at times, without fully landing all the moments. In Act II, however, it settles and finds its heart.

Jemma Rix’s lovely, warm Elphaba is the heart and soul of the show. She gives a dramatically layered performance and sings with a gorgeous tone, bringing a spine-tingling, crystal clear belt to the show-stopping, anthemic “Defying Gravity”.

Lucy Durack returns to the role of Glinda, having starred in the original 2008 Australian production. She appeared to be struggling with some vocal issues on opening night and her voice sounded somewhat scratchy. She also pushed the comedy a bit too hard with inverse results. However, her scenes with Rix in the second act were as touching as ever.

Reg Livermore is wonderful as the not-so-wonderful Wizard of Oz, bringing nuance, humanity and a winning showmanship to the role, Steve Danielsen is an understated presence as Fiyero, without a great deal of chemistry with Rix, but he sings beautifully, Maggie Kirkpatrick reprises the conniving Madame Morrible with aplomb, and Emily Cascarino and Edward Grey do a good job as Nessarose and Boq.

Wicked tackles serious themes about oppression, tolerance, propaganda and fear mongering, which strike a real chord right now. But it’s the “swankified” spectacle of the lavish set and costumes, the catchy, soaring melodies, and the uplifting “girl power” sisterhood between Elphaba and Glinda that have won it such a huge following. The production may have lost a little of its sparkle but the Sydney opening night audience was clearly delighted in the main, leaping to their feet at the end and roaring their approval.

Wicked is at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until January 30. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28