TV celebrity John Davidson on stage as the Wizard in 'Wicked'

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2013 - 3:07 PM

John Davidson, best known as the telegenic game-show host, is on stage as the Wizard in “Wicked.”

John Davidson as the Wizard in “Wicked.”

‘People sometimes don’t recognize me until I smile,” said actor and TV star John Davidson. “I must have based my career on smiling, which is stupid.”

Actually, it has proved pretty smart for him.

Davidson’s mega-watt beam, part of a package of charisma and charm, helped him land high-profile showbiz jobs, including hosting such game shows as “The New Hollywood Squares” and “The $100,000 Pyarmid.” Davidson filled in for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” scores of times and, for a while, had his own TV talk show.

In recent years, he has returned to his first love, the stage. He did a one-man show on Teddy Roose­velt, which played at the Ordway Center in the 1990s, and has lent his star power to such con men as Harold Hill in “The Music Man” and Bill Starbuck in “110 in the Shade.”

Davidson plays another charlatan, the Wizard, in “Wicked,” which opens a six-week run Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre.

“I’m only onstage 17 minutes out of a three-hour show, and they’re paying me quite well to do that,” he said. “I’m a very lucky man.”

Indeed.

Unlike some other musicals, “Wicked” has never been a star-dependent show. Instead, it has built its juggernaut appeal on its story, its songs, including “Defying Gravity,” and solid talent.

But the producers of this tour, the fourth to touch down in Minnesota, tapped Davidson as a “name.” They also booked veteran soap star Kim Zimmer, of “Guiding Light.” In the musical, she plays Madame Morrible, the Shiz University headmistress who is, in a word, evil.

“No, she’s not,” said Zimmer from her home in New Jersey. “She’s just complicated.”

Madame Morrible has the powers of a witch. She changes the weather. But she’s not a witch, either, said Zimmer.

“She’s a witch, but with a ‘B,’ ” said Zimmer.

Like Davidson, 71, Zimmer finds that she, too, is not often recognized. Blame it on the heavy makeup and wigs.

“People will come back to the show after reading the program at home to get my autograph,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s funny like that.”

The two actors both say they relish their roles for more than the paycheck.

For Davidson, it gives him a chance to do what he loves.

“The Wizard is there because people need to have something to believe in and that’s why he’s successful,” he said. “He came into Oz at a time of discontent, saying, ‘Here I am.’ ”

The role also gives Davidson a chance to see the country. He and his wife, Rhonda, are traveling around for the tour in a camper. While their mobile home does not rise to Loretta Lynn-style luxury, it does have two bathrooms and a full kitchen.

  • Wicked

    What: Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Winnie Holzman. Directed by Joe Mantello.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Wed., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Thu., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat. Ends Oct. 27.

    Where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $49-$169. 1-800-982-2787 or www.ticketmaster.com.

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