‘Wicked’ returns to Dayton for three-week run

Veteran and new cast members share love of performing

The Wizard of Oz, it turns out, has connections to Ohio as well as to Kansas.

Popular entertainer John Davidson, who’s currently portraying Broadway’s most famous wizard in the national tour of “Wicked,” has been performing on Ohio stages for decades.

The theatrical blockbuster returns to the Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center for three weeks — April 29 through May 17. Based on the 1995 novel, “Wicked” is the winner of 100 international prizes including a Grammy and three Tony awards. It has grossed over $3.75 billion worldwide and has been seen by over 47 million people across the globe. Music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, who has had close connections to Dayton over the years.

The touching story revolves around two girls who meet and become friends in the Land of Oz long before Dorothy’s arrival. Elphaba and Glinda are destined to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good.

MORE ABOUT DAVIDSON

Davidson, who made his mark as a TV show host and leading man, is celebrating 50 years in show business. He appeared on “The Hollywood Squares,” and frequently substituted for Johnny Carson on the “Tonight” show. His association with the Buckeye State began when he studied theater arts at Denison University in Granville.

“Three seasons of summer stock at Denison really prepared me for New York,” said the actor, who immediately landed a part in a Broadway show when he first got to New York after college. “It was my first job, a musical starring Bert Lahr and I played his son,” he explained. “He’s best known as the Cowardly Lion in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ so it’s a little like I’ve now come full circle.”

Many theater lovers also will remember Davidson on stage at Dayton’s Memorial Hall when he toured with the legendary John Kenley. The Kenley Players brought dozens of popular Broadway musicals to Columbus and Dayton in the 1960s.

“I did Kenley several times,” Davidson recalled when we chatted with him by phone recently. “I was Curly in ‘Oklahama’ and Harold Hill in “Music Man.” He also has fond memories of appearing on the television shows that made broadcasting history in our region and helped him in his career: Cincinnati’s “Ruth Lyons 50/50 Club” (later hosted by Bob Braun) and the “Phil Donahue Show,” which originated in Dayton. Davidson also played Dayton’s Suttmiller’s Supper Club.

“There’s nothing like an Ohio audience; it’s the heart of the country, and it’s where America lives,” Davidson said. “Governor Rhodes brought me in for the Ohio State Fair.”

But some of his memories aren’t so happy. “I was the performer on a night that changed many people’s lives — the night of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire,” Davidson said, adding that he prefers not to talk about the subject. The tragic event, on May 28, 1977, killed 165 people.

MAD ABOUT “WICKED”

Davidson, whose wife accompanies him on tour, makes his home in Lenox, Mass. They enjoy life on the road, traveling with 75 others in the cast and crew and with 14 huge trucks. “My career isn’t as hot as it was in those early years, but I feel lucky and grateful to continue to work in a profession I love so much.” He still does live concerts, playing guitar and banjo.

But this opportunity to appear in “Wicked” has been a joy. “I feel like I’m getting back to my roots because I started on Broadway. I’d love to keep doing this for the next five years.”

Davidson calls “Wicked” a phenomenon — still on Broadway. In Atlanta, the national tour of Wicked grossed $3,266,527 in a single week, the highest weekly gross in North American touring history. He said it’s the show of the decade, a perfect example of where the American musical is today. He attributes the show’s success both to its production value and its story. “ It’s the story of a woman of color — in this case her color is green — and her friendship with a white girl, and it’s a tremendous story of friendship and how people come into our lives for a reason — to touch us and make us better.”

He also believes “Wicked” is popular because it’s a family show. “You look out at the audience every night and you see 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds, and they’re all on their feet cheering.”

Davidson believes today’s musicals have better stories than musicals of the past. “I still love the old shows, but the stories of “Carousel” and “Oklahoma are so simplistic. “Wicked” has soaring music that’s just as good as the old plays, and the lyrics are better.”

PLAYING THE WIZARD

Although in a way his character is the focal point of the show, Davidson said it’s really about the witches. “The fun of playing the Wizard is that you’re bamboozling people, a little like Harold Hill in “Music Man,” who knows nothing about music and is just a bamboozler. The Wizard is the same thing. He has no special powers; he’s a faker, and that’s really fun to play!”

He said this touring troupe is not doing “Wicked Light.” “We take this show very seriously. Our leading ladies are crying when they come off stage after singing their duet, ‘For Good.’ “

At age 73, Davidson said most of the other cast members are in their 20s and 30s and had no idea that he’d had a previous career. “They Google me and come back surprised,” he said. “One of my jobs is as a cheerleader to cheer these kids on. They’re at the beginning of their careers, and most nights I’m in the wings cheering for them.”

MEET ELPHABA

One of those Davidson is cheering for is Alyssa Fox who plays the leading role of Elphaba. She calls him the show’s Papa. “We know he has such an extensive resume, and we all look up to him on stage and in real life. It’s an honor to be on stage with someone with such a rich history of television, film and theater.”

Fox says she’d be hard pressed to think of a role that’s “a bigger deal’ than her current one. The part was originated on Broadway and in London by Idina Menzel. “Every time I play it, I connect more and more to it,” said Fox, whose ultimate dream is to be on Broadway someday. Her favorite song is “No Good Deed” at the end of the show. “Elphaba accepts that everyone else is calling her ‘Wicked’ so she owns that title and becomes the Wicked Witch in her own way,” Fox explained.

Her first connection with “Wicked” came when she was still in college and spent all the money in her bank account to fly to New York and audition for the show at an open call. A year and a half later, after several call-backs, she was asked to be a stand-by on tour, and moved up to the leading role in 2015.

Fox believes people of any age can relate to the characters in “Wicked” and their life situations. “Sometimes people come to the play and aren’t sure if they are going to like it and then always say: ‘Wow, I really got something out of it I didn’t expect.’ ”

The things they get out of it, Fox said, are its important messages: messages of friendship, conquering differences, not relying on first impressions, not judging someone by their looks. “There are things deeper down than what’s on the outside,” she said. “Characters come to a mutual understanding of each other and realize that differences don’t mean you can’t get along.”

Fox said though she’d been singing all her life, “Wicked” was one of the shows that made her want to do musical theater. She especially relates to Elphaba.

“Her character fits me, and I can relate to her. She likes to read a lot and isn’t much of a party girl. I had a hard time making friends in school and was kind of nerdy — in the orchestra and choir. I was very skinny and got made fun of a lot in middle school. I got a lot of flak for outer looks just like Elphaba. I’ve learned a lot from her in that sense — not to care what other people think of you because it’s the inside that matters.”

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