'Wicked' swirls back to Baltimore

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
73,000 people expected to catch "Wicked" when it reaches Baltimore for the third time

There's something awfully good about "Wicked." The numbers tell part of the tale.

Since opening in 2003 on Broadway, where it still packs them in, the musical prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" has moved with cyclonic force across the globe — productions in more than a dozen countries (and in at least five languages), reaching 44 million people and grossing $3.6 billion.

"Wicked," with its potent story, score and stagecraft, reveals no signs of slowing down. The latest North American tour, which recently broke a box-office record in Atlanta, swoops into Baltimore this week. It will be the third time that the musical has visited the Hippodrome Theatre — the previous stops were in 2007 and 2012.

"It's like a freight train that keeps coming stronger and stronger," says Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, home to the Hippodrome. "It's a four-week run that's going to bring 73,000 people to the theater."

The magnet for those people is a fanciful tale subtitled "The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz," about green-skinned, "beautifully tragic" Elphaba and lighter, cheerier Glinda. Their complicated relationship, the way Elphaba ends up with the "wicked" tag, and the machinations of a supposed Wizard — all before some buttinsky kid named Dorothy turns up — help fuel the show's plot.

With vibrant music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and an eventful book by Winnie Holzman (based on a novel by Gregory Maguire), the show cannot help but strike resonant chords, especially given how many generations already have "The Wizard of Oz" in their DNA.

So, obviously, "Wicked" is very good to the people responsible for bringing it to the stage, among them Pikesville native Marc Platt, one of the lead producers.

"I take an enormous pride and satisfaction in 'Wicked,'" Platt says. "But there's pressure in making a well-done production that can deliver eight times a week wherever it plays. We make sure that each cast that comes through Baltimore is as good as the one before. Baltimore is always so welcoming to this show. And the company knows it's my hometown."

Among those heading to the Hippodrome stage this go-round is John Davidson, who plays the role of the Wizard. "Wicked," it turns out, is good for him, too.

The veteran singer-actor, last in Baltimore in a tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "State Fair" in 1998, was a fixture on TV for decades, starting in the 1960s.

His boyish, dimpled face was seen in a sitcom, his own variety show and guest appearances on many a program (he frequently filled in for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show"). He also served as host of such games shows as "Hollywood Squares" and "The $100,000 Pyramid."

"The television part of my career had died down, and I was more into doing concerts," Davidson says. "I was singing on cruise ships. Then I saw 'Wicked' in 2004 or 2005, and thought, 'Gee, I could do that.'"

It took a while, but after an off-Broadway stint three years ago in a revival of "The Fantasticks," Davidson asked his agent to see about getting an audition for the Wizard in "Wicked." It worked.

"This show is all about the witches, not about the Wizard, but I was just thrilled to get the part," Davidson says. "And I work it pretty good. I've got the dimples working — only they're creases now. This is my second tour with the show. I hope they will extend me the rest of my life. I'm 73 and so grateful."

The tour cast also features Alyssa Fox as Elphaba, a role she previously understudied on tour, and Carrie St. Louis, a veteran of "Rock of Ages," as Glinda. Playing Oz's leading hunk, Fiyero, is Ashley Parker Angel, an original member of the boy band O-Town who portrayed Link Larkin in "Hairspray" on Broadway.

Looming over any production of this musical are memories of two sterling performers who started it all on Broadway in 2003 — Idina Menzel as Elphaba and Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda.

"When you have such extraordinary originators of roles, they always leave an imprint, of course," Platt says. "But we never ask anyone to imitate them. Each of our casts brings their own unique personalities, which keeps the show alive and fresh, makes it the same and different each time."

If the part of the Wizard is not quite as identified with its first interpreter, Joel Grey, it brings its own set of expectations and challenges.

"The Wizard is affable, but not always capable of making good decisions," Platt says. "He is in many ways an entertainer, putting on a show for the people of Oz. And there's something so immediately affable about John Davidson, who is a wonderful entertainer who has kind of done it all. There's also something nostalgic about him, much as there always is for [the 1939 movie] 'The Wizard of Oz.'"

Davidson draws a bit on that iconic film, which starred Frank Morgan as the man who would be a wizard.

"I love his idea of the bumbling, ex-carnival guy," Davidson says. "I see the Wizard as very much a showman. He's also a bamboozler, a con man. I've done a lot of tours as Harold Hill in [the Meredith Willson musical] 'The Music Man.' Harold Hill knew nothing about music, and the Wizard knows nothing about magic. But you have to play the Wizard with charm. Even if Al Pacino were playing it, there would have to be charm."

In "Wicked," charm often gets counterbalanced by less admirable qualities. The Wizard, for example, is quite the cynic ("Where I'm from, we believe all sorts of things that aren't true — we call it 'history'"). Unsentimental and edgy notes are very much a part of the musical's potency.

"There are some dark moments," Davidson says, "and when New York [producers] come in to look at the [touring] show over every couple of months, they make sure we remember that. They'll tell us, 'We're not doing "Wicked"-lite. We're doing "Wicked" for real.'"

If all goes well, all the facets of "Wicked" will be transferred to the big screen in the next few years.

Platt, whose most recent stage project, the musical "If/Then" (starring Menzel), wrapped up its New York run last week, is an even bigger player in the cinematic world.

His many producing credits include the recent film version of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" and two works scheduled for release this year: "Ricki and the Flash" with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline (and Platt's son, Ben Platt); and Steven Spielberg's Cold War thriller "Bridge of Spies," starring Tom Hanks.

Meanwhile, there is the long-talked-about "Wicked" movie.

"It's in process," Platt says. "It takes time. 'Chicago' took 10 years to get to the screen. The time allows for the luxury — and the pressure — of getting the movie exactly right. With film, you get to explore things in different ways and often in different detail. I'm intent on delivering a unified cinematic experience. The bar has been set high."

Might there be a totally new stage venture some day dealing with Oz-related folks and fancies?

"We've told the story we wanted to tell in 'Wicked,'" Platt says. "Another journey hasn't occurred to us, but if it does, we're an ambitious group and I'm sure we'd jump in."

The producer, who has been trying to find room on his schedule to catch "Wicked" while it's at the Hippodrome, returns to Baltimore periodically to visit relatives and maybe catch a Ravens or Orioles game.

"You know why I like to come back? Because there's no place like home," Platt says, pausing for effect. "I couldn't resist it."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Wicked" will be on stage Wednesday through April 26 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30 to $195. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.

There will be lottery for a limited number of $25 orchestra seats (in person, cash only) for each performance. Names must be submitted 21/2 hours before curtain time.

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If you go

"Wicked" will be on stage Wednesday through April 26 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30 to $195. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.

There will be lottery for a limited number of $25 orchestra seats (in person, cash only) for each performance. Names must be submitted two-and-a-half hours before curtain time.

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