To make a living in live theater, it’s quite common for an actress to hit the road.
Although Randy Danson has appeared in regional theaters across the country for nearly 30 years, she’s only now appearing in a national touring production, one that’s touching down in Hartford this Thursday, August 25, when the mega-hit “Wicked” opens at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.
In this musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s best-selling novel purporting to tell the true story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West of “Wizard of Oz” fame, Danson plays Madame Morrible, the manipulative and treacherous headmistress of Shiz University, where the show’s two heroines, Elphaba and Galinda (later Glinda) go to college.
“Isn’t it curious that I’ve had an almost exclusively theatrical career,” the actress revealed recently in a telephone conversation from Washington, D.C., where the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical was playing a multiple-week engagement at the Kennedy Center. “How could I have had such a rewarding life in the theater and never toured before.”
That could be considered unusual for an actress who has garnered outstanding reviews for commanding performances in any number of leading classical roles. She’s played Seneca’s Phedre twice, the Scottish Lady in the Shakespeare play she is hesitant to name because of its supposed curse if mentioned in a theater, and Clytemnestra in a landmark production of “The Oresteia” at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. She’s also given an award-winning performance in the title role of Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechuan” at the Arena Stage in Washington as well as the title role in “a challening, psychological complex” production of “The Duchess of Malfi” under the direction of the innovative theater artist Robert Woodruff at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. She’s also visited Connecticut’s capital city before, in Michael Langham’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” at Hartford Stage.
Danson, it is important to note, is equally at home in contemporary roles as well. She won a Barrymore Award in Philadelphia for Margaret Edson’s “Wit” and was part of an ensemble cast that was together for nearly a year off-Broadway and later at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater in Craig Lucas’s “Blue Window.”
The national tour of “Wicked” has been Danson’s priority for almost two years. “I found I loved touring and that I loved traveling,” she admits. “Seattle, Denver, New Orleans, I’ve always wanted to visit those cities. We were one of the first large-scale touring shows to play New Orleans after Katrina. It was a lovely experience on so many levels. People were jazzed to have us there and we were just as jazzed to be there ourselves.”
The tour has played plenty of large cities, but Danson has been pleased with the chance to play in such mid-sized markets as Columbus, Denver and Cleveland, the latter of which gave her an opportunity to sneak away for a day trip to visit her alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, in nearby Pittsburgh.
Finding out that she liked touring was not the only surprise she encountered with “Wicked.” She learned she was comfortable in a big-scale Broadway musical. “I’ve done very few musicals in my life,” laughed the actress in her distinctively rich deep voice. “I’m not really a singer. My range is very low. There are very few important roles in the baritone register. So, thank you Stephen Schwartz.”
Of her character, Danson sees Morrible in some ways as a continuation of many of her classical roles. “I’m at home with the style of the character; I’m at home with the period. It’s all bustles, corsets and trains. I put on the costumes and I know where we are.” She praises Susan Hilferty’s “huge, gorgeous designs,” she adds, saying “they are the best dresses ever. They are a hoot.” She considers Morrible to be the true “wicked” woman of the show. “It’s always tremendous fun to play the bad guys, isn’t it?” she slyly asks.
As for any roles that Danson would like to play going forward, she quickly mentions,Lady Bracknell, Algernon’s imposing and formidable aunt in Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest.” She describes the role as “a real challenge,” adding that she sees “Earnest” as “such a perfect, seamless play. I’d like a crack at it before I die.”
In recent years, Danson has explored another aspect of her artistic talents, this time as a designer of jewelry which she nows sells on the internet at Maiden Lane. “I started designing while doing “The Oresteia” I taught myself how to do it and got to a point where I began giving everyone earrings. When I ran out of people, it seemed natural to start selling. It also gives me something to occupy my time while on tour.”
She’s also been pleased that the “Wicked” tour has attracted a broad audience, disputing the widely-held notion that the musical is kept alive by romantic teenage girls. “We get people from six to over sixty,” she relates. “Some nights we peek out and can’t see any young people in the audience. That attests to our appeal, but we do like to spot children so we can wave to them during curtain calls.”
As a veteran of regional theater, Danson also looks to these young people to become the future audience. “I’ve seen the aging of the audience,” she states, “yet I know it’s tricky trying to bridge the gap between the generous, long-time supporters of the theaters, while trying to develop programming that appeals to this new audience as well.”
For the next three weeks, Danson will have the chance to add Hartford to the list of cities she’s visited on this tour and to demonstrate to local audiences just how wicked good an actress she can really be.
To purchase tickets, call the Bushnell box office or visit the Bushnell online.
To keep up with theatrical events in western Massachusetts, please visit the Springfield Arts Examiner.