Stage Preview: John Davidson enjoys con game in 'Wicked'



John Davidson doesn't leave things to chance. When he says that his "Wicked" co-star Alison Luff is a great young talent, he spells out L-U-F-F. When he says the secret to touring is having a wife who likes to travel as much as he does, he spells out the name R-H-O-N-D-A, his wife of 30 years.

And when he decided he wanted to play the role of the Wizard in "Wicked," he picked up the phone and asked for an audition.

He has been touring in the role originated by Joel Grey on Broadway since April and arrives this week in Pittsburgh, where he was born in Mercy Hospital in 1941. His family lived in Warren, Pa., but when his father left for the Pacific to serve as an armed forces chaplain, his mother and brothers moved in with his grandmother in Edgewood for a few years. The Davidsons moved from Western Pennsylvania when he was 6 to several points east before John attended Denison University in Ohio and found his calling as a singer-actor.

Viewers of 1970s TV might remember him mostly as a host of game and talk shows -- "That's Incredible!," "Hollywood Squares" and as a stand-in for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." Or for his all-American good looks and easy charm, put to use on shows such as "The Love Boat" and "Love, American Style."

'Wicked'
Where: PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Wednesday through Feb. 9; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, plus 2 p.m. Jan. 16.

Tickets: $39-$149; trustarts.org or 412-456-4800. A lottery for a limited number of $25 orchestra seats requires participants to arrive 21⁄2 hours before each show at the Box Office at Theater Square. Details at 412-456-4800.

But his first love was the theater. Sporting a Broadway-friendly baritone, he went to New York with the thought of becoming a leading man and early on was taken under the wing of TV producer Bob Banner, who nurtured talents such as Carol Burnett and Bob Newhart.

Before heading off to a career on the small screen, he made his Broadway debut in 1964 in the short-lived musical "Foxy."

"I played Bert Lahr's son, and you know, he was the Cowardly Lion [in the movie 'The Wizard of Oz']. I guess you could say there's a full-circle connection there," he said by phone from Providence, R.I., where he began 2014. He finishes up his run with the tour in Pittsburgh.

He's having such a good time that he's hoping when his schedule allows he will be invited back.

"They played 'Wicked' three times [in Providence] already, and we're just wall to wall, basically sold out," he said. "It's an amazing phenomenon -- I feel so proud to be in this show. ... They don't need me [to sell tickets], but I really wanted to be the Wizard after I saw the show years ago. I love to play the con man -- I did lots of tours as Harold Hill in 'The Music Man' and as Starbuck in '110 in the Shade.' This guy's a con man, too. He's faking it."

The title in "Wicked" refers not just to the green witch we thought we knew from "The Wizard of Oz." That description may also fit others in the land over the rainbow, depending on your point of view. The "Oz" prequel by Winnie Holzman and songs by Stephen Schwartz, extracted and reimagined from Gregory Maguire's novel, centers on wicked-witch-to-be Elphaba (for "Oz" author L. Frank Baum) and Glinda, the oh-so-blond Good Witch.

The mega-popularity of the musical "Wicked" seems unstoppable. The winner of a Grammy and three Tony Awards recently celebrated a decade on Broadway, and the tour was a sellout on its last visit here, in 2011. There are nine productions worldwide and two North American tours, including the one that returns to Pittsburgh starting Wednesday.

Mr. Davidson last was on stage in Pittsburgh with the CLO, to direct "Oklahoma!" and reprise the role of Curly, which he had played many times before and which had earned him a Theatre World Award in 1965.

He looks back on the time with some regret.

"The last time I played the Benedum, I tried to play Curly, and I was 50. A reviewer very nicely suggested, 'Isn't he a little old?' He was totally right, but I had always wanted to direct it. ... I look forward to playing the Benedum and coming back to the city. Pittsburgh is an amazing melting pot of [theater] talent."

He is amazed each night as he watches the onstage talent from "Wicked's" wings; many remind him of his youngest daughter, aspiring actress Ashleigh, a graduate of Boston Conservatory who is working on a master's at Harvard.

"I watch the show every night, and these kids, they are all so wonderful. You listen to Alison Luff, and she is Broadway quality," he said.

The Wizard doesn't make an appearance until more than an hour into a show that is "all about the witches." From his vantage point, he has an up-close perspective on what has made this a show that keeps on ticking after a decade and counting.

"After seeing the show over 100 times, I've come to realize, we all have a green girl inside of us. We all have been outcasts in some way or not accepted in some way, in some tribe, in some social structure. I think we can all relate to that green girl who is an outcast. Then of course, it's the story of their great friendship, the growth of their relationship, that takes so many twists and turns."

Mr. Davidson, who has recorded 13 albums and had his own theater in Branson, Mo., for three years, is easily recognizable as the boyish charmer from his TV years, but today, he sports a full head of white hair. He said he feels the distance of age and experience from his co-stars, an observation he makes simply as a matter of fact.

"It's great being the Wizard, but I feel a little isolated -- it's lonely at the top," he said, a predicament the actor shares with his character.

"I'm 72, and most of the people in the show are in their 20s. I feel I'm at a different point and it's a great point -- I'm very content where I am. So many of these young people will go on to do bigger and better things, but I would love to continue to be the Wizard into my 70s. It may be my last big thing."


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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