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Madame Morrible and The Wizard

Randy Danson and Mark Jacoby describe their Wicked ways

The producers of the national tour of the Broadway musical Wicked, now playing at Shea’s, have taken great pains to ensure that the show maintains the high standards that made it a colossal Broadway hit. The young performers who play Elphaba and Glinda, Jackie Burns and Amanda Jane Cooper, are sensational in this story of how the Wicked and Good witches of Oz met as school roommates, long before Dorothy made a crash landing in Munchkin Land. Their voices truly soar, and they exude palpable charm.

But for me, even greater evidence that the Wicked company takes seriously the business of maintaining the show on tour at the same level audiences enjoy on Broadway is to be found in the casting of the character roles. Consider the casting of Randy Danson as Madame Morrible and Mark Jacoby as the Wizard.

Ms. Danson has won off-Broadway’s Obie Award for sustained excellence, Washington’s Helen Hayes award for Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan, and Philadelphia’s Barrymore award for Margaret Edson’s Wit.

Mr. Jacoby received a Tony award nomination for playing Gaylord Ravenal in the Harold Prince revival of Show Boat. He played Father in the original production of Ragtime. He won Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson award for playing Guido in the musical Nine, and the Barrymore for playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. And he was Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera for an amazing three years!

Each has a litany of other classy credits to add to the mix. And for now, they’re having a swell time playing two juicy character roles in the most popular musical of our time.

Danson and Jacoby took time to chat with Artvoice by telephone while—what else—on break from rehearsal at Shea’s. In addition to the heavy performance schedule, Wicked rehearses frequently—and it shows. From the opening number, it is obvious that this show is tight; there is not a flaccid or tired moment to be seen from beginning to end.

For their part, Danson’s Madame Morrible, teacher of magic to young Elphaba and Glinda, is a delightful concoction—an ambitious woman who takes a deliciously catastrophic dive off the deep end. Jacoby’s Wizard is a surprisingly layered creation, a deeply flawed and surprisingly real man in the center of a world of fantasy people. Perhaps it takes actors of great stature and seriousness to populate a show so light that it positively defies gravity.

Interestingly, Danson got her own first taste of the theater while she was a student at a private girls’ school, the Hartridge School for Girls, where her mother also worked, in New Jersey.

“That was the life-altering moment,” Danson reveals. “We didn’t do a lot of plays, but I was in every one, and in junior and senior year I participated in a summer theater camp program. That is where I got the idea, ‘I could do this!’”

Danson had a great deal of family support. Her mother and brother are also artists.

Looking at her credits, it might seem that Madame Morrible is a huge departure for Danson. She’s played Lady Macbeth; she’s played Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, and Clytemnestra in the Oresteia.

“Well,” notes Danson at the observation, “the role I played immediately prior to this was a gorilla. It was in Precious Little, a new play by Madeleine George off-Broadway. And if one thinks about it, Lady Macbeth, Amanda Wingfield, and Clytemnestra may be very serious roles, but they all take a dive off the deep end.

“I see Madame Morrible as an ambitious woman who gets carried away,” she says. “She just becomes so obsessed that there is a point at which she just goes bonkers. And I’m having a wonderful time doing it.”

Indeed, when Morrible gets her comeuppance, the audience does not feel an ounce of sympathy for her. Danson plays the moment with high comic flair.

“It is great fun to be so silly,” she admits. In addition, says Danson, “I only saw one Madame Morrible before I did the role, Rondi Reed. I never saw Carole Shelley, who played the part originally, and they’ve given me a great deal of wiggle room to make the part work for me.”

Mark Jacoby’s career has taken him to Broadway again and again. His very first journey to a Broadway stage connects him to an impressive heritage. He played Vittorio Vidal, the Italian movie star, in the 1980s revival of Sweet Charity that starred Debbie Allen, winning a Theatre World Award in the process. The immortal Gwen Verdon, who created the role of Charity, assisted Bob Fosse on the production, helping to recreate signature choreography, originally devised for her.

“We rehearsed in California,” recalls Jacoby. “When I arrived for the first day of rehearsal, I walked in and there was Gwen Verdon, smoking a cigarette. She said, ‘Hi, Iiii’m Gweeeen,’ with that quavering voice, and I thought, ‘That must be the most over-the-top Gwen Verdon impersonation I’ve ever heard!’”

Seeing Verdon work was an education. Jacoby recalls that she was very precise and very old-school, which caused friction with Debbie Allen. Verdon did not like to see variations from her original performance.

Other great names of Broadway have figured prominently in Jacoby’s career, most significantly the legendary director, Hal Prince, who used him for Phantom of the Opera and then for his astonishingly successful revival of Show Boat. The latter, took Jacoby into world of Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky, and into the original production of Ragtime, which began in Toronto.

Talking about Wicked, Jacoby is surprisingly analytical. While he concedes that the role is very relaxing as compared to Phantom of the Opera, for which he constantly had to worry about his voice, he does not see anything superficial about Wicked, and especially not about his character. And don’t try to suggest that The Wizard is a bad person!

“Does this man consider himself a bad person?” asks Jacoby. “He is a man who has suffered many disappointments and who has had to make difficult choices, and he is very lonely.”

And while Jacoby is able to delve into the innermost psychology of his character, he is also simultaneously able to observe the reactions of audiences.

“The audiences are very astute,” he notes, “and they really enjoy seeing the clever ways that the story of Wicked picks up on the original Wizard of Oz story. They really come alive when they find the clues and can see how ingeniously the two plots fit together.”

You can see Randy Danson and Mark Jacoby in Wicked at Shea’s through May 22.