‘Oz’ prequel casts its spell in New Orleans

The upcoming musical production of “Wicked,” the final offering of the 2012-13 Broadway in New Orleans series, is an attempt to soften the centuries-old image of witches, even if the title might imply otherwise.

“The show is really about misunderstanding and discrimination, and how good deeds can be misunderstood and abused, and how good people can go bad,” said Clifton Davis, who performs in the production in the role of Dr. Dillamond, the popular history professor in the school attended by the show’s two leads.

“Wicked” opens Wednesday at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts and runs through June 2. Show times vary.

In a nutshell, this multi-award-winning extravaganza predates the unscheduled arrival of Dorothy in a wind-blown Kansas farmhouse. It takes the audience back to the roots of “The Merry Old Land of Oz” rivalry between Glinda, the blonde, glamorous Good Witch of the North (Jenn Gambatese) and Elphaba (Alison Luff), the homely, green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West.

Although his is not a leading character, Davis’ describes Dillamond as being “key to the plot. ... in that (Elphaba) becomes an animal activist. By listening to Dr. Dillamond she unearths some sort of plot to suppress the animals of Oz.”

Dillamond’s only song in the production (“Something Bad”) is a duet in which he confides to Elphaba that something is causing the animals of Oz to lose their powers of speech. She replies that the Wizard (John Davidson) may the only one who can help.

As the action progresses, we learn the origins of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and the flying monkeys, as well as the significance of the ruby slippers. By the time of Dorothy’s arrival, the story elements are in place for us to pick up the familiar tale.

There are about 20 songs in this two-act show, including more than half-a-dozen chorus numbers. Davis sings with the chorus on several of those numbers at the beginning and end of the production.

A veteran actor, singer and composer, Davis brings a long and widely varied background to this production. His first appearance on Broadway came in 1967 as a member of the chorus in “Hello Dolly” starring Pearl Bailey. Half-a-dozen other Broadway shows followed, plus numerous off-Broadway and regional theater productions.

Success came to Davis in another form when, as a self-taught composer and songwriter for Motown in the early 1970s, he wrote three songs that were recorded by Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five. His Grammy-nominated composition “Never Can Say Goodbye” also became a huge disco hit for Gloria Gaynor and several other artists.

Branching into TV, Davis starred in “That’s My Mama” with Theresa Merritt and “Amen” with Sherman Hemsley, which lasted for five seasons on NBC.

An ordained Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Davis recently put out his first CD, “Strength for the Journey,” a 12-song gospel collection.

Summing up his experiences with the traveling production of “Wicked,” Davis said, “I’m having the time of my life, because I believe this show is one of the best Broadway shows I have ever seen, and certainly one of the finest productions I’ve ever performed in. It’s a great evening of theater.”

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