About a half hour into "Wicked Ways" at the Lyric Opera House last night it was "deja vu all over again," as Yogi Bera said.
It has all been shown before: the evil drug dealer, the prodigal children, the God-fearing parents who pray that their children will stop running with the wrong crowd, return to school or church and make something of their lives.
While the story line may be getting a little worn around the edges, "Wicked Ways" is probably the strongest in the string of nationally touring urban contemporary musicals that have played the Lyric in the past couple of years.
It has better actors, costumes, music and singers than its predecessors. But it's plagued by many of the same problems -- poor set design, a script modeled after TV sitcoms that's designed to get lots of belly laughs. At three hours it's too long.
As with most of its genre, the best part of the musical is the music. Well-known recording artists Alyson Williams and Keith Staten steal the show with their soulful delivery of gospel standards and some tunes specifically written for "Wicked Ways."
Staten, who has been a gospel recording artist for a decade, is reminiscent of the late Rev. James Cleveland, the father of modern gospel singing, in his emotional delivery of the standard "Precious Lord." Williams, known for her fashionable stage wardrobe, is not easily recognizable by her fans in this play since she plays Sister Lee, a middle-aged preacher's wife, complete with outdated clothes and gray wig.
But she is identified by her tremendous vocal range that plunges and soars several octaves in a dramatic presentation that makes one wish that it was one of her concerts. But, alas, the show goes on.
Williams' husband in the play is the Rev. Lee, played by an actor who is not identified in the program. He is assistant pastor of a small, inner-city congregation that's surrounded by the modern plague of drugs. He also happens to be, in this morality play, a police captain. Predictably, at some point he is intimately involved with the destruction of a major drug dealer.
The Lees, of course, are as pure as Ivory soap, and certainly don't deserve the grief caused by three of their children. That trio is tempted from the straight and narrow by the lure of the big money, and fancy clothes and cars of the drug dealer. The youngest daughter, played by Regina King of NBC's "227," is fairly convincing in her role as the ingenue who gets involved with a vicious drug dealer. But her character is too naive to be believable.
The small-time drug dealer, who becomes a kingpin through his brutal actions, is played by an actor who is not identified in the program but delivers lots of energy and style. Again the role is overdrawn and one-dimensional. He's a drug dealer and pimp who pushes old and disabled women and forces a crack addict to beg for "rocks."
He's nice when he wants sex or tries to hook women on drugs. This guy is meaner than a junk yard dog.
Fans of such plays as "Wicked Ways" will recognize its similarity to "Momma Don't," which played the Lyric earlier this year. Both plays were written by Michael Matthews a singer and playwright who says his inspiration was his crack-addicted brother who was able to overcome addiction with the aid of God and a loving family.
"Wicked Ways" is at the Lyric through Sunday. Show times are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with 3 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $13.50 to $23.50. For more information, call 481-6000.