“It’s time, it’s time; bring on the Pantomime.” With this first (and now familiar) rhyme, we are introduced to another year’s imaginary beasts Winter Panto. This year, we are treated to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as told by the expert cast, lead by Director and Playwright Matthew Woods. Though the production is not quite as fulfilling and neat as last year’s Kerplop! The Tale of the Frog Prince, this original production is an enjoyable treat for the whole family to experience L. Frank Baum’s world of friends, adventures, dreams, and finding yourself.
The imaginary beasts include excellent and streamlined dramaturgical notes in the program to explain the unique tradition of the British pantomimes. These “pantos” are normally performed around the holidays and date back to the Victorian Age. The pantos are a “raucous send up of social mores and popular culture,” and the imaginary beasts have perfected this art. One of the biggest thrills is seeing a returning cast of the company’s actors return to similar and new kinds of roles. For instance, the fabulously camp and deliciously amusing Joey Pelletier takes center stage as the Dame, a type of character always played by a man. However, this year, our Principal Boy, a role typically played by a woman, is notably absent from this year’s panto; the essence of this role is shared by two more than capable actresses: Sarah Gazdowicz as Dorothy, of Kanas; and Molly Kimmerling as Scraps, the Patchwork Girl of Oz. The duality of these very different characters (both of whom lead their own stories in L. Frank Baum’s novels) creates a unique experience for the audience. We follow both of these stories as they weave, diverging and converging, telling both the Judy Garland’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Scraps’ story towards independence and success as a Herstorian. As one astute audience member explained to her two children before the performance started, “If you know the story, you can change the story.” Here, the imaginary beasts, under Director and Playwright Matthew Woods’ guidance, we have our own special stories about Dorothy, Scraps, and their friends and enemies.
We open with The Royal Historian & All Whom It Entails (played by all sage and know-how by Bob Mussett), introducing us to the storytelling of Oz and his dutiful (but misguided and untrustworthy) pupil, Scraps, the Patchwork Girl of Oz (played with wide-eyed innocence and joy by Molly Kimmerling). The opening scenes drag slightly, as the cast (and audience) adjusts to the non-traditional opening to the typical Oz story. We can’t wait to jump to Kansas and meet our familiar friends, and a slight cutting of the opening scene would work wonders for the panto’s pacing. Once we reach Kansas, we are treated to our favorite Farmhands, Billie Bale (played by the lovely Amy Meyer); Nick Chopper (played by the charming Michael Chodos); and Jim Dandy (played by our favorite fop Cameron Cronin). They introduce themselves to us as dreamers, and we have our first song, “Don’t Fence Me In” by Cole Porter, adapted by the cast to excellent effect. And then we meet our Grand Dame, Auntie Em (played by the commanding Joey Pelletier in my personal favorite of his panto roles); Dorothy (played with effective ingénue and flavor by Sarah Gazdowicz); and Toto, Too (played with wisdom and scrappiness by William Schuller, an expert comedian, especially in this role). Gazdowicz and Schuller exhibit outstanding chemistry, which make the story feel more like an enjoyable journey than ever before. The decision to include Auntie Em on the trip to Oz is spot-on brilliant; Pelletier has more of a chance to shine, and we have more rich interactions (watch for our Tinman, played by Chodos, and Auntie Em’s choice encounters!).
Other notable performances delivered by The Sheriff & O.E.O, the Captain of the Winkie Guards (played with bumbling humility by Noah Simes); The Dogcatcher & Eppe Pepper, the Winged Monkey (played by the devious but underutilized Mikey DiLoreto); The Yellow Brick Road (played with confident fast-talking Michael Underhill, a wonderful new character for him); The Nome King (played with Libby Schap, given a chance to shine in a hilarious non-sequester of a role); and Miss Gulch & Momba, the Wicked Witch of the West (played by the always campy and delicious Matthew Woods). Tattypoo, the Wicked Witch of the East (played by the hilarious but also neglected Elizabeth Pearson) and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (played by the glittering greatness, Kiki Samko) should have been utilized more effectively, perhaps through a meeting of the three witches through dance or song. The cast is also featured in an original “The Trolley Song” (specifically, the Tinman, Glinda, and Auntie Em); “We Built This City [On Emerald Stones];” and ending with “Life is a Highway.” This year, the songs and dances felt better integrated into the action, especially the Act II songs, though they ran a little long without much change or plot progression.
Once we reach Oz, we have few variations from the original story, but it all feels original and new because of Woods’ and the cast’s excellent dialogue and its delivery. Unlike past years, the cast feels more comfortable with the rhythm and rhyme, and the ad libs feel more effective and punctuated. However, the use of the “Hey Diddley Dee” by Kimmerling’s Scraps never fully sticks; multiple audience members shouted (or not) different phrases at key moments. I would suggest picking a different phrase next time or creating more instant uses of the phrase to help with muscle memory. This year’s panto also seemed empty of the typical topical themes and life lessons. Perhaps because L. Frank Baum includes so many useful lessons within his original works, Woods and his cast felt that the story spoke for itself, but I wanted to feel like the production had a greater purpose and focus. My suggestion would be to create more of an emphasis on either the atypical dreams relayed by the farmhands in the “Don’t Fence Me In” number or focus on Dorothy’s unique strength as an independent, free-thinking and strong-willed young woman, reinforced by both Gazdowicz’s clever and nuanced portrayal and Pelletier’s influence as mentoring Auntie Em.
As always, the highlight is Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s effective use of costumes to showcase story and characters, especially Auntie Em, Glinda, and Momba’s outfits. Toto, Too has a delightfully shaggy jumpsuit which I enjoyed scratching during a rare moment of the actor joining the audience. Christopher Bocchiaro’s lighting design is surprisingly effective in the Plaza Black Box, utilizing effective transitions and color to emphasize the story’s progression and moods. Bocchiaro and Woods’ set design is simpler than past years, but, overall, an effective choice, and it features some nice artwork by Megan Kinneen. The sound design was a little demanding of the audience’s attentions at times, especially given the space, but seemed to adjust well as the production progressed.
Overall, this year’s panto is solid enjoyment, featuring familiar favorite performers reprising similar roles and many actors performing in new types of roles to excellent success. While I found this year’s panto more traditional and faithful to the original story’s text and not offering many of the much-appreciated topical themes and life lessons, the production still includes many of Baum’s familiar elements and moments. These moments have teachable moments for people of all ages, and the production is a much more accessible panto than in past years. Bring the whole family, stay for the audience feedback and spirited routines (“Boo hiss boo” will always be my favorite), and celebrate another year of this original tradition, unlike anything else that you will experience all year.