News Column

Green machine Elphaba and the Emerald City return to Chicago for a 'Wicked' run

October 25, 2013


The musical blockbuster "Wicked" celebrates its 10-year anniversary on Broadway on Wednesday, Oct. 30. It's also the same day that one of two national tours of "Wicked" returns to Chicago at the Oriental Theatre.

Chicago-area audiences have been very good in the past to the coffers of "Wicked" producers. The musical immediately sold out its original national tour stop in 2005, prompting producers to create the Windy City's own "sit-down engagement" of "Wicked" that lasted more than 1,500

performances at the Oriental Theatre. "Wicked" was also wildly successful during an eight-week return touring engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre starting in late 2010.

This time around, there is some TV star power from yesteryear to be found in Oz. John Davidson ("That's Incredible," "Hollywood Squares") is playing the duplicitous Wizard of Oz, while Kim Zimmer (Reva Shayne on "Guiding Light") appears as the scheming sorceress professor Madame Morrible.

At this stage of their careers, both Davidson and Zimmer are happy to be part of an ensemble of a lavishly produced hit show, even if it's in two supporting roles. After all, "Wicked" is really more of a "Wizard of Oz" prequel about the rivalries and friendships of the Oz witches Elphaba (Alison Luff) and Glinda (Jenn Gambatese) before Dorothy and Toto drop in from Kansas.

"I started off doing romantic things, probably because of my looks," Davidson said, noting that his 1967 film debut in the "The Happiest Millionaire" was the last movie project Walt Disney was working on before he died in 1966. "But con men are much more fun, like playing Harold Hill in 'The Music Man,' Starbuck in '110 in the Shade' and the Wizard (in 'Wicked'). It's great stuff to work with because your objectives are so much stronger and your whole purpose is to bamboozle people."

"It's icing on the cake," said Zimmer about playing Madame Morrible. "I get to sing a little, I get to deliver some very funny lines and I get to be a part of a big historic show. When the curtain comes down and the audience gets up on their feet and roars - - it's a wonderful experience."

Davidson and Zimmer probably would have been mobbed by adoring fans at the stage door 30 years ago, but younger "Wicked" fans might only recognize them as the characters they play onstage -- if at all.

"The 'Wicked' fans give me a lot of attention and want my autograph because I'm the Wizard, not because I'm John Davidson," said Davidson, who will soon celebrate 50 years in show business and who will turn 72 during the Chicago return of "Wicked."

"Unless people read their programs, they don't know who I am," said Zimmer, who adds that as Madame Morrible, she wears a lot of lavender-colored face makeup and elaborate white wigs. "I'm so disguised in the show that I can just walk right by crowds of people and they have no idea."

Since his 40-week tour with "Wicked" began in April, Davidson and his wife, Rhonda, have been staying in a custom motor coach from city to city, through they're planning on keeping it in storage in Mundelein and finally taking advantage of a hotel during the Chicago run. As for Zimmer, she'll be leaving the company after Chicago following a two-contract run with "Wicked," happy that she'll be able to be at home in New York with her family for the holidays.

When asked if they serve as mentors to the younger ensemble members of "Wicked," both Davidson and Zimmer said they share career advice and anecdotes rather than performance tips.

"So many of these young people are just concerned about playing this role, but my suggestions and what we talk about more is, 'What about the role of Alison Luff or Jenn Gambatese?'" Davidson said. "I always talk to them about things outside 'Wicked,' like how to play Las Vegas, how to make records, how to have a sitcom or get into the movies."

Davidson has his own connection to "The Wizard of Oz," since he made his 1964 Broadway debut in the short-lived musical "Foxy" opposite Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in the classic 1939 MGM film.

"(Lahr) was a very frustrated man because he was always trying to make it funnier and make it work," Davidson said. "An incredible man, but he was always hard on himself."

Zimmer also likes to share career anecdotes, and appropriate of being a former soap opera star, her advice on romantic issues, too.

"I am Momma Morrible," Zimmer said with a laugh, regarding cast members' professional and love problems. "I get knocks on my door all the time."

Davidson's and Zimmer's casting in "Wicked" continues in the tradition of having other well-known actors play the Wizard and Madame Morrible on Broadway and on tour like Joel Grey, Carol Kane, Ben Vereen and the late Rue McClanahan.

But that added star power typically hasn't been exploited by producers to sell more tickets.

"It is not a star-driven show at all," Davidson said. "The star of the show is 'Wicked.'"

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