The Wiz That Was

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.)

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.

Other elements have lost a step too. The costumes by Susan Hilfterty aren't as crisp as they once were. Designer Kenneth Posner's lighting, which used to feature some spectacular smoke and laser work in "Defying Gravity," seems to have been taken down several notches. Some of the dancers in the corps look like they've been hitting the hotel buffet line a little too often. P.J. Benjamin, playing the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is so thick and clunky he can't even manage a passable soft shoe in his big solo.

The only cast member who tops her predecessor is Barbara Tirrell as Madame Morrible, the headmistress who in Act 2 suddenly becomes the Wizard's press advisor (for no logical reason whatsoever). Carol Kane is a fine comic actress in movies and TV, but on a big stage, her garbled diction swallowed a lot of funny lines. Now Tirrell's Morrible gets more laughs than Glinda.

Instead of a thrilling evening of musical theater, this Wicked's woeful. Long before the curtain came down, I was ready to click my heels three times and go home.

From Oz to The Odd Couple: That old workhorse of a comedy by Neil Simon is now back in a sturdy, pleasant enough production at Theatre Three. Doughy Doug Jackson and flinty Bob Hess play Oscar and Felix, divorced New Yorkers sharing an eight-room apartment on Riverside Drive. One hint at how vintage this comedy is: They argue about the rent, which is $120 a month. Couldn't you die?

Directed by T.J. Walsh, this Odd Couple gets its best laughs from the silences between Simon's punch lines. Jackson and Hess, their characters' friendship strained by Felix's obsessive-compulsive tidiness, begin the second act with a 10-minute pantomimed war over personal boundaries. Oscar strides up and over the furniture, kicking everything in his path. Felix tries to eat a plate of linguini, which Oscar heaves onto the wall. All a bit Niles v. Frasier Crane, but masterfully staged and acted.

Serving as the rumpled Greek chorus is Oscar and Felix's quartet of poker buddies: Murray the cop (newcomer Lonny Schonfeld, who's terrific); impatient Roy (Elias Taylorson, a young Martin Balsam type); nervous Vinnie (David Fluitt); and grumpy Speed (Bradley Campbell). Fluttering in as the fine-feathered Pigeon sisters are Ginger Goldman and Caitlin Glass.

It's a still-sprightly American play about a couple of buddies sorting out their differences. Those lines about Oscar's kitchen—when he serves brown and green sandwiches to his poker pals, he says the latter is "either very new cheese or very old meat"—still get howls no matter how many times you've heard them.

Simon says, see it again if you need to laugh it out for a few hours.