Local Magic

Courtney Dibben and Nina Lippmann star as Galinda and Elphaba in the Townsville Choral Society's 'Wicked', showcasing at the Townsville Civic Theatre until 3 September. IMAGE: Chrissy Maguire

When you walk out of the theatre overhearing people debating whether a show was produced by local amateurs or touring professionals, you know that the calibre of performances put on by Townsville groups are comparable to the best in Australia.

This feeling was reflected in words by Townsville Choral Society Committee President Rod Wilson following the society’s opening night of Wicked: he had seen the show in Melbourne prior to Townsville taking it on, and set himself a standard he hoped our local cast would be able to meet.

But they far exceeded it, easily matching the talents of metro professionals. And we are here to inform you that not a single word Rod spoke was a lie.

Wicked was mesmerising.

When a show with such a high reputation is handed over to local groups, you will always get the skeptics; those who believe it should be left to the professionals. If you are one of these people, I encourage you to attend any Choral Society or NQOMT production – you will not be disappointed.

We spoke to lead witches, Courtney and Nina, about the production several months ago, so knew of the time and energy they have been funneling into these roles for some time now. And all of that time has indeed paid off.

Nina Lippmann was jaw-droppingly good as Elphaba.  We’ve seen her shine in a host of ‘meeker’ roles, but as the misunderstood witch she was absolutely spellbinding. I typically equate solo numbers to a tiny, lone actor dwarfed by an enormous empty stage – often they’re the numbers where I take a beat to readjust in my seat, look around at how the rest of the audience is reacting, and wonder how many hours of sleep I’ll squeeze in when I get home. But Nina’s big voice filled the entire space despite her slight frame frame, and had my full attention; from her very first number until the very end. She shifted effortlessly between gawking and clumsy to scorned and terrifying to frightened and tender. She’s an absolute star.

Likewise for Courtney Dibben as Galinda (with a ‘ga’). Courtney’s comedic timing and talent for mimicry is astounding and at times I felt she became Kristin Chenoweth (who made the role her own on Broadway). Funny, mean-spirited,  sweet – Courtney gave us the full gamut and then some, with a powerhouse operatic voice to boot. Even without the towering sets and the dazzling outfits, Nina and Courtney’s voices alone could transport you into the land of Oz.

Courtney Dibben (Glinda) and Nina Lippmann (Elphaba). IMAGE: Chrissy Maguire

The Choral Society spared no expense with Wicked and it showed: the main costumes and sets borrowed from CLOC Musical Theatre in Melbourne were all phenomenal, and were given new breaths of life with additions from the Choral Society’s costume realisation team, led by Joshua Service-Barratt. The nit-picker in me fell head-over-heels for Joshua’s costuming wizardry – especially the beautiful school ‘uniforms’ all different in design, but with hints of the same chic fabrics peppered throughout each. The entire show is one big aesthetic feast, lit up expertly thanks to the prowess of Lighting Designer Jamie Schmidt: from spotlighting a single witch centre stage, through to making the illusion of flight look believable, the lights were spellbinding. Layer upon layer of visual spectacle has been built into this behemoth of a show – sets, puppets, costumes, hair and makeup,  right down to the ensemble’s expressionism.

Special mention also must go to Brett Greenland, taking the role of Dr Dillamond by the horns. From the moment Brett was first herded onto stage last night, the audience fell in love with him. His timing was impeccable, he managed to come across as equally wise and timid, and knew when silence was golden – the emotion in his scenes added a lot to the show, and made us understand Elphaba’s character so much more. Makeup Artist Nikki Armstrong gets a mention here too, not only for the incredible transformation of Brett but also Elphaba’s green skin. The ‘greenifying’ process is one I know many theatre companies dread, however you made Nina look as natural as a green witch could be.

A big shoutout also must go to the band. Wicked’s soundtrack is not an easy one, filled with sporadic pauses and soaring notes, so combining the ensemble and band is a tricky but important part of the production. Conductor Ryan Christoffersen and his band did every piece justice, and raised the cast to new heights – as if they were all Defying Gravity.

A few points of note. There were some moments that lacked the dramatic treatment they deserved, particularly revolving around the flying monkeys. The concept was for the audience to feel penned in and frightened, but they were either too long and drawn-out, or lacking in volume to give the full effect. Another point: the sets were incredible, there’s no denying that. But I’m on the fence about them. There were several times when I was distracted from watching what was happening on stage by one of the side projector screens turning blue, or by an ensemble member noticeably ducking to avoid protruding balconies midway through a number. Townsville has the talent of major cities not only onstage, but offstage as well: could the money spent to ship sets up have been just as well spent designing one to suit our theatre? This is a question that I’m only half-serious about, because the hours spent to recreate a set of that magnitude would keep someone busy full-time for a year.

There really is so much that could be said, but we want to leave the rest of the magic – from the secrets lurking in the program to the soaring moments made possible by Ricky Olfacious – for you to discover. This production is worthy of comparison to touring musicals, because it could very well be one itself. Our sincere congratulations to Directors Andrew Higgins and D’Arcy Mullamphy who have taken a Broadway hit and given it a Townsville shine. You haven’t just staged an amateur production of Wicked, you have transported Townsville to the Gershwin.

Wicked brought with it a sea of challenges and big ruby slippers to fill. But they have been filled, and the Choral Society should be incredibly proud. The cast and crew were rewarded with a standing ovation last night, and for good reason – no one would have left disappointed.

Catch the Townsville Choral Society’s production of Wicked at the Townsville Civic Theatre from now until 3 September. Very limited tickets are still available from the TicketShop.

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