By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The road tour of Wicked first blew into town during the 2005 State Fair with a company that rivaled the Broadway originals for sheer gut-busting star power. The Glinda and Elphaba from that production are playing leads on Broadway right now—Kendra Kassebaum carrying on as the bubble-headed good witch in the show; Stephanie J. Block, free of wicked witch Elphaba's apple-green makeup at last, playing the title role in the huge new musical The Pirate Queen (from the composers of Les Miz). Carol Kane, Madame Morrible in the 2005 tour of Wicked, and impish David Garrison, who played the Wizard of Oz, also have joined the Broadway cast.
The tour of the show is back again for a multi-week run at the Music Hall at Fair Park as the season opener of the Dallas Summer Musicals. But compared to the version that played here just 18 months ago, clearly the thrill of Wicked is going, going, gone. Without the rock 'em, sock 'em voices of Block and Kassebaum, who also had crackling comic chemistry as the show's rivals, the songs by Stephen Schwartz stumble along on repetitive melodies and kitschy lyrics till somebody hits a shrill, screaming note to wind them up. The on-a-dime plot reversals and cornball jokes in Winnie Holzman's book now sound weak beyond belief: "There's a goat on the lam!" Groanius mucho.
What a difference casting makes. Dallas theatergoers were disappointed two years ago to hear that Wicked's original Tony-winning diva duo Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel wouldn't be hitting the road with the show. Then we saw Kassebaum and Block and felt fortunate to catch these rising stars before they got too big to play the hinterlands. Everything about that first road company clicked perfectly. (It was so good, in fact, that I paid $115—about five times the cost of a typical Dallas theater ticket—to see it a second time just to make sure I hadn't been blinded by big-budget whizbangery. I loved it even more on the return.)
The Odd Couple continues through May 13 at Theatre Three, 214-871-3300.
So what's sucked the brains, the heart and the brave, big voices out of the current Wicked? Maybe they're just tired. That first Wicked tour was still fresh and feisty when it came to Dallas before (this may have been just its second stop). Now they've been busing and trucking this show around the country so long even the wings on the flying monkeys look droopy.
Instead of belters such as Chenoweth, Menzel, Kassebaum (who had Judy Holliday's comic chops and Beverly Sills' lungs) or Block (a young Streisand), Wicked's leads have gone to unknown regional theater actresses Christina DeCicco as Glinda and Victoria Matlock as Elphaba. Their roles require oversized but not overacted performances, and it helps to have some Broadway seasoning to know how to knock it up to the back row of the upper balcony without looking desperate. Oddly, DeCicco and Matlock go the other direction, taking overly dramatic approaches and emoting quietly, like they're in some intimate playhouse instead of the cavernous Music Hall. They internalize their characters' feelings so much, they often appear to be doing The Wizard of Ibsen.
There's nothing about Wicked that needs to be taken that seriously. It's a silly splash of a fairy tale—based on the novel by Gregory Maguire—that serves as a prequel to the Oz stories by L. Frank Baum, as well as to the plot line of the beloved 1939 MGM movie musical starring Judy Garland. In Wicked, Glinda the Good Witch of the North and Elphaba, born green and not happy about it, meet as teenage roommates in a Hogwarts-style academy for young sorcerers. They hate each other on sight but develop a friendly rivalry over the attentions of the school's prettiest boy, Fiyero (played in the tour cast by the fiercely fey Cliffton Hall).
When it turns out that Elphaba has magical powers that only activate when she's angry, she has to make the choice to use her skills for good or evil. Thus the title of the show. Only in the gratuitously sentimental twist at the end do we discover that her badness has given way to good—a secret only glittery Glinda is in on.
Cute to the point of tooth decay, yes. But with the right voices, the score of Wicked has some goose-pimply good showstoppers. In the 2005 cast, Stephanie J. Block's soaring opening number, "The Wizard and I," hinted at how great she was going to be later with the Act 1 closer, "Defying Gravity." Rising on her broomstick toward the rafters, Block's newly mean-ified Elphaba performed vocal gymnastics that had the audience stomping and screaming their approval. It's the first time I've ever seen a musical earn a standing ovation before the first intermission.
No such magic happens in the current Wicked, which drags and sags throughout that 90-minute first act. Conductor Bryan Perri does little to gig the leads, DeCicco and Matlock, into singing any faster. Everyone in the cast chooses to sing slightly behind the beat of the music, which only slows things down more. Matlock deliberately talk-sings many lyrics in her solos, like a witchy-poo Rex Harrison.