Megan Gauler, 18, of Kouts remembers her first stage encounter with the witches of Broadway's record-breaking box office smash "Wicked."
"It was 2009, and I was still in middle school when I saw it the first time," said Gauler, one of the fans caught up in this week's tornado of celebrations for the musical's 10th anniversary and return to Chicago, opening Wednesday for an eight-week run through Dec. 21 at Oriental Theatre, 24 West Randolph in Chicago, the show's original Windy City home.
Gauler said she attended with her brother Jacob and their parents Matt and Sherry, and still recalls how they passed around a pair of binoculars to see the details of the stage and costumes.
"We had no problem seeing the set and scenery, because it's so spectacular," she said.
"The special effects, like the giant dragon and floating head of the Wizard are amazing."
Less than a year later, she was back in the Land of Oz again, this time to see the show as a surprise celebrating her grandmother's birthday.
"Wicked" originally premiered on Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre in New York in October 2003, and starred Idina Menzel as green witch Elphaba, Kristin Chenoweth as the pink preferential Glinda and Joel Grey as the Wizard. When the original first national touring cast played a limited engagement from April 29 to June 12, 2005, at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago, it was such a run-away ticket hit, producers decided to extend it to an open-ended run, making it the first non-Broadway sit-down production of "Wicked." The new-cast production opened at the same Chicago theater the day after the touring production finished, with "Saturday Night Live" actress Ana Gasteyer stepping into the high buttoned pointed shoes and hat of Elphaba, Kate Reinders as Glinda and Rondi Reed as Madame Morrible.
Maddie Bartsch, 19, a sophomore at Valparaiso University, said she first became a fan of the musical after her father, who has worked as a professional actor in Chicagoland for 25 years, auditioned for a role in the "Wicked" cast.
"When I finally got to see it in Chicago, it was with my Girl Scouts troop, and I was already familiar with all the songs," Bartsch said.
"It was nice to see how all of the music and lyrics fit into the storyline and plot, after having spent so much time listening to the soundtrack."
Both Gauler and Bartsch agree "Wicked" not only offers fun and fantasy wrapped into a neat tale of humor, romance and excitement, but also important themes and symbolism.
"There's a wonderful message shared about acceptance," Bartsch said.
"Not only is it important to accept others who might be different from yourself, but also, it's important to accept yourself."
For this new tour that finishes playing Minneapolis this weekend and arrives in Chicago Monday to begin prep for Wednesday's opening, the run features favorite previous star headliners singer and actor John Davidson as The Wizard and "Guiding Light" soap actress Kim Zimmer as "Wicked" teacher Madame Morrible.
"John and I don't really remember it, but we have worked together in the past," Zimmer said.
"I appeared as a guest on three episodes of the game show 'Hollywood Squares' when he was hosting it in the 1980s."
Zimmer, whose family hails from Grand Rapids, Mich., has been with the tour for the past 15 months.
"It used to take me so long to get into my costume and makeup," Zimmer said.
"Now, I put myself together very quickly. I'm not as worried these days of how my arched eyebrows turn out, even when my eyeliner pencil slips."
Davidson, who also holds the distinction of having been a regular guest on the original "Hollywood Squares" hosted by Peter Marshall in the 1970s and starring Paul Lynde in the center square, said he is joined on this tour by his wife Rhonda and their large Maine coon cat Follies.
"For this tour, I talked with my wife and we decided to rent a large RV to travel the country in rather than living in hotels," Davidson said.
"But when we get to Chicago, it's going to be too cold, so we're storing it and taking an apartment for those two months."
Davidson, who last played the Chicago stage in 1996 for a stop with the national tour of "State Fair," said he's savoring his every moment playing the Wizard in "Wicked."
"He's a con man, but it's a great role," Davidson said.
"I think I'm more believable in this character, compared to when I played a hog farmer in 'State Fair.'"