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Marc Platt, David Stone, Universal Pictures, The Araca Group, Jon B. Platt and John Frost present WICKED. Presented by ANZ.

Entering the lush and beautifully refurbished Regent Theatre Melbourne and been ushered into an ultra plush, wide and heavenly comfortable seat, with acres of leg room, is a rare and promising beginning to a night at the theatre. The interior design of this auditorium is a fantasy in itself.

In front of us is a most extravagant Broadway theatre design. (Settings by Eugene Lee.) A green breadth of castle and forest of the old Cinerama expanse (Those of us who remember and lament it, know how wide that is) absorbs us. (Maybe I should describe it as IMAX size.) Sitting on the top of the centre of the proscenium arch, a large dragon stands guard and seems to be watching us and defending the Land of Oz. Throughout the entire evening there is a multiplicity of set design shifts that are tireless in their imaginative assistance to the telling of the story. The details of the setting design has the scope and flow of the cinema, and all of this is, on stage. The setting changes are so smooth that for some of us they might go by unregarded. But this is a Broadway musical. The real thing!! No expense has been spared.

The Lighting (Kenneth Posner) is the next creative hero. The variety and artistic invention to support the design and more especially the story is almost miraculous in its invention and affect. Several times I gasped with pleasure (I mean literally) and the Lighting design for the finale of act one “Defying Gravity” is superlative.A coup de theatre. A real Broadway one.

The costumes (Susan Hilferty) are glitzy, over the top, especially for the chorus and, are not as equal in their impact as the Set and Lighting. The costumes of the principal characters are witty but not always as comfortably appropriate as the other design elements. They draw attention to themselves unnecessarily. (The curtain call highlights their ugliness.)

The Book (Winnie Holzman) is based on the contemporary novel by Gregory Maguire. “…his first adult novel, WICKED. A devotee of children’s fantasy, Maguire’s subsequent novels are variations on a theme”. He has written one using the Cinderella story, another expanding the Dicken’s Scrooge ghost, another still, using Snow White and in this instance set in a High Renaissance court ruled by the scheming Borgias. In this case, WICKED, Mr Maguire and subsequently, Ms Holzman have taken the fondly cherished THE WIZARD OF OZ story of a dislocated Dorothy and friends attempting to find their way home to Kansas, and developed a prequel focusing on the stories of the witches of the original. Cleverly, the stories of The Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba and her friend, the Good Witch, Glinda, are expanded and placed front and centre with the other familiar characters peripherally, teasingly hinted at (Like Hamlet is in Stoppard’s ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD.) This is a very felicitous conceit and may account for the easy embracing of the play. The writer’s have also used the iconic rivalry between the air-headed but good natured blonde and the smart and wise brunette, (Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, hello!) there is also the contemporary connections to fantasy movies and stories of dragons and magic (Harry Potter et al) to hook you in, and guarantee an easy and contemporary familiarity to the world and its premises. We are ready to believe. This is smart commercial dramaturgy and it doesn’t feel exploitative.The text is witty and the Lyrics and Music of Stephen Schwartz are a triumph of fantasy confection and contemporary street-smarts. Most of the songs are deliciously wicked and soberingly sombre,when they need to be: “Popular”, “Wonderful”, “No Good Deed”, “For Good”. Here is a contemporary musical that has lyrics that you want to hear and music to support them.

The performance of Amanda Harrison (Elphaba) is outstanding and the singing was secure,powerful and pleasant to hear. “Defying Gravity” a sensational act closer. The voice has such a centered and controlled technique that one is left with a pleasant wonder. On the other hand, on the night I attended, although it is a delightful performance, Lucy Durack (Glinda) seemed to have been straining the voice and there is a raggedness to the quality of the sound and the clarity of consonants were very unpredictable. Difficult to catch all the wit of the text. The sound quality is delightful characterisation of the iconic dumb blonde but I hope it was not at the expense of the voice itself. It was a distraction. The supporting cast including stalwarts like Bert Newton and Maggie Kirkpatrick are good. The acting is just appearing a little glib, (phoned in) presentational from all, just lacking the extra concentration needed to give perfection to the performance.

The Dance Arrangements (James Lynn Abbot) are mostly just flash and dash to seemingly facilitate scene changes and is the least integrated and impressive element of the show.

I had a very pleasant night in the theatre. But this musical for all of its pleasures lacks the creative unity of BILLY ELLIOT. In BILLY ELLIOT, the book, design elements, the lyrics and especially the choreography are superior in their integrity to the artistic whole. (The Wicked score however wins hands down over the Elton John effort, for my money.)

The magic fantasy world of WICKED is a great attraction for the musical theatre audience and less testing then the hardship but inspiring story of a miner’s son with a dream. This is a wonderfully clever night of concocted distraction from the realities of a dazed world with enough values to give one an optimistic step to take with you as you leave the theatre for the footpaths and public transport of the streets of Melbourne. Well worth the time spent and the money found. Do go and take your kids, they will be enchanted forever with the theatre.

Playing now until 18 January 2009. Book online or call 132 849.