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Theaters deliver at Wisconsin Dells

by Rick Wilcox on July 19th, 2008

Wilcox magic show, ‘Footloose’ serve up family fun, but landlocked Tommy Bartlett show falls flat

Journal Sentinel theater critic

Wisconsin Dells – There is no truth to the rumor that Rick Wilcox is responsible for Lake Delton disappearing last month. But he does make his wife, Suzan, vanish and reappear six nights a week here.

A bowling ball, doves and a Lamborghini are also conjured up by the Brookfield native. Hmmm. Maybe he could do something about Lake Delton.

Rick and Suzan Wilcox operate their own 550-seat magic theater here, where they perform a smooth 90-minute show that defines the concept of family entertainment.

A few miles away, the cavernous Broadway Dinner Theatre is producing the stage musical version of “Footloose” for the entire summer. And while the lake on which the Tommy Bartlett Show has been water skiing for 55 years is now a mud flat, the brand name that is synonymous with the Wisconsin Dells is still in business, offering a land-only entertainment this summer.

In an attempt to re-create my youth and sneak in my first Paul Bunyan breakfast in decades, I spent a few days in the Dells recently. Along the way I checked out the illusionary Wilcoxes, the young “Footloose” cast and the remade Tommy Bartlett show.

Rick Wilcox Magic Show

Magic and the Dells were made for each other. I may have been the only adult in the county not chaperoning a pre-adolescent, and what form of entertainment crosses generational lines as easily and effectively as conjuring and wizardry? It’s difficult to imagine any family-friendly magic show better than the current edition of the Rick Wilcox Magic Theater.

With credits as glitzy as Vegas and as distant as Kenya, the Wilcox couple grew weary of their frequent-flier lives about 10 years ago and began looking for a permanent location for their show. They bought a building formerly used for country music concerts and extensively remodeled it into a comfortable space that can accommodate a size range of illusions.

The Wilcoxes appear at the Dells year round, with the schedule trimmed to weekend-only performances during the school year.

We first see Suzan in the current production. She sets the stage for her husband’s blink of an eye entrance in a fire engine red Lamborghini that miraculously materializes. Rick climbs out of the sleek auto, and the show is off and running.

Classic magic bits – the torn newspaper, the cut ropes, folded paper money – are flawlessly executed. Smaller hand illusions are projected on a large video screen for the folks sitting toward the rear of the theater.

The Wilcox show distinguishes itself with several qualities that raise it above the ordinary. Clever twists on standard illusions give the audience a slightly different experience. At one point, the audience is given a backdoor view of the lady in the box trick.

Of course, we all assume the person inside the package somehow slithers out the rear to make the illusion work, but that doesn’t happen here. Suzan vaporizes with the door closed.

The married couple excels in stage polish, presence and light comedy. Doing the tricks is only half of being an entertaining magician. Showmanship is vitally important.

Although her background is in real estate, Suzan goes beyond the usual magician’s assistant neutral persona to deliver a defined character. She’s a leggy blond with a great sense of timing, comic expressiveness and a hint of a smart-alecky attitude. She deserves the equal billing she gets with the hubby.

Rick is theatrically slick. He comfortably mines the honesty and humor of the small children who clamor to join the magician on stage when invited. Their unpredictability contributes to the comedy, and Wilcox appears able to deftly handle the unscripted spontaneity of dealing with a 5-year-old.

The current production closes with a nifty special effect that sends everyone home in a good mood. Isn’t that what a trip to the Dells is all about?


The teenage rebellion breaking out at the Broadway Dinner Theatre here is tuneful and non-threatening. “Footloose” was a successful movie in 1984, and 14 years later a stage musical version arrived on Broadway, where it ran for a year and a half despite tepid reviews. Its adolescent issues and characters have made the show a favorite for high school and college productions.

Familiar teenage themes – an outsider trying to fit in, stodgy adults squelching all the fun, sticking it to the strait-laced parent – are the show’s foundation. The conflict is benign and the tone is fun, as is the score, which includes songs written by Kenny Loggins, Sammy Hagar and Jim Steinman.

The Broadway Dinner Theatre opened two years ago in a hulking new structure featuring a lobby as large as some theaters and a 690-seat auditorium that includes tiered tables. An amusing quirkiness is also present.

Most notably, executive head chef Giles Svehlek, in his kitchen whites and toque, gets center stage attention. He makes a grandly announced entrance during the salad segment of the meal and describes in vivid detail the dinner he and his staff have prepared.

Svehlek, a longtime Brookfield restaurateur, also encourages the audience to laugh and applaud during the show, goes table to table schmoozing the customers, and shakes hands at the door after the performance. He deserves a curtain call for food better than standard dinner theater fare.

“Footloose’s” large non-union cast is a bit ragged around the edges, but it looks good, sounds terrific, and is solid in all of the principal roles. A core of young performers drives the show with infectious energy and demonstrable talent. Several are ready for brighter lights in bigger cities.

Impressively playing the protagonist, a high school kid forced to move from Chicago to a rural town, Robb Coles displays a fluid and commanding presence. Samantha Voss, who portrays his girlfriend, the rebellious preacher’s daughter, has all of the musical theater tools plus a confident savvy. Cute and sexy Dana Wilson possesses a Broadway voice and appealing spunk.

Tommy Bartlett Show

The show must go on is often knee-jerk performance bravado. Sometimes the show shouldn’t go on. Such is the case with the 2008 edition of “The Tommy Bartlett Show.”

After Mother Nature drained Lake Delton and ended any thought of water skiing on it this summer, Bartlett officials chose to continue their annual production by adding several acts to their land show. But the late Bartlett built his Dells attraction on the aquatic feats of skiers and boats. Would you go to the Indy 500 if the cars weren’t on the track?

The decision to replace the water segment with more circus and vaudeville acts might have been successful if the production values of the land show had been raised. In unforgiving daylight, the planked wood stage, mostly covered by dirty and torn outdoor carpeting, looks cheap and tacky.

With the exception of veteran comic juggler Dieter Tasso, the acts are second- and third-rate. Wes Harrison’s sound effects, mildly diverting at best, go on way too long.

A clown is unintentionally pathetic. And the relentless plugging of the Bartlett gift shop and concession stand in a show paper thin on entertainment leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

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Since opening their 550-seat Wisconsin Dells theater in 1999, Rick & Suzan Wilcox have entertained thousands with their illusion show.
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