Yellow brick roads and alphabet avenues

Posted on 04 Jun 2010 at 12:44am
By ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

Two of the best recent musicals, Wicked and Avenue Q, vie for your theater attention


Dallas theater gets a double dose of national touring musicals this week in Wicked and Avenue Q, but this isn’t the first time the these gay-friendly productions have gone head-to-head: Puppets bested witches at the 2004 Tony Awards, with Avenue Q taking best musical, score and book.

But it’s really a question of comparing (poisoned) apples with (fuzzy) oranges: One’s all about splash, one’s more insidiously fun. Both are enchanting.

The enchantment comes in the form of spells in Wicked — the before-the-house-fell story of what happened in Oz leading up to what we know — which returns to Fair Park Musical Hall for the third time. If you missed it before, this is an excellent chance to catch it, although the current production simply can’t compare to the first, which starred Stephanie J. Block, the original Elphaba until Idina Menzel stepped in.

Donna Vivino, who’s now playing the green-skinned, misunderstood no-friend-of-Dorothy, has a beautiful voice — and there has hardly been an Act 1 closer to rival "Defying Gravity" for vocal and staging thrills. But Vivino, like many of the principals, seems to be on half-volume. It’s not possible to do this show too big, and Elphaba — with her magical powers and wide-ranging character arc — can be the biggest. But on "The Wizard and I," Vivino fails to fill the stage like Elphaba should. There’s an overall lack of energy.

But not of talent. Chandra Lee Schwartz comes close to capturing the original sorority girl flightiness of Galinda (later Glinda), and the design of the show is still stunning: The flamboyant costumes, the giant mobile set, Stephen Schwartz’s captivating score. If this version lacks some gusto, it more than makes up for it in its strong foundation.

But enough of the Yellow Brick Road — let’s ease on down to Avenue Q. The first time you see an adorable, furry puppet utter the word "Fuck!" you know you’re not on Sesame Street anymore. And it sets the tone for the most politically incorrect but undeniably saucy musical ever envisioned.

Princeton is a college grad who moves onto a street populated with down-and-outers: An unemployed comic, a Japanese social worker, a kindergarten assistant and Gary Coleman. Yes, the late TV star is a character in the play, and his death right before I saw it led to a few nervous laughs from the audience. But really, making fun of the recently dead is the least of this shows transgressions.

It’s not, of course, for children, although its sensibility is directed ate aging Gen-Xers who appreciate the updated nostalgia even as the show conveys genuine sentiments of diversity, acceptance and self-esteem with modern, adult issues (like what to do after a one-night stand and the protocol of anal-play during sex).

After seeing the show multiple times, my favorite characters have become the Bad Idea Bears, two squeaky-voiced adorables who encourage binge-drinking and suicide with reassuring delight. But from closeted gay Republican Rod to trampy Lucy the Slut, there’s not a weak part of the cast. (The humans do a good job, too.)

Or in the score. The sing-songy tunes have shockingly inappropriate titles ("If You Were Gay," "The Internet Is for Porn," "Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist") with laugh-out-loud lyrics and hummable melodies. Try not to sing them in public. And try to resist this infectious musical.

Wicked at Fair Park Music Hall, 909 First Ave. DallasSummerMusicals.com

Avenue Q at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. ATTPAC.com

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