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'The Wizard of Panto-Land' gives nods to Andrew Lloyd Weber and Disney productions

"The Wizard of Panto-Land" was such a hit at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in 2010 that OCT brought it back for the 2013 holiday season.

With book and lyrics by Cabaret Artistic Director Jim Giancarlo and music by Portland composer Eric Nordin, "The Wizard of Panto-Land" is an updated, kinder and gentler take on the traditional British Christmas panto genre — a musical mixture of fractured fairy tales, topical humor and cross-dressing villains. Giancarlo again directs and choreographs, with Nordin back as musical director.

"The Wizard of Panto-Land" may start out as an homage to Dorothy and the magical world of Oz, but it is firmly anchored in the timeless fairy-tale themes of hapless damsels, loopy sidekicks and wicked witches and stepmothers.

The show opens as Dorothy searches through the audience for the missing Toto, hoping to find him before the dogcatchers do. Dear old Auntie Em is a 6-foot urban drag queen who has been hoodwinked onto the farm by a now-missing Uncle Henry. (Henry wrote her that he owned a "firm" in Kansas. His handwriting was very bad.) Auntie Em has been saddled with eager, earnest Dorothy and her yappy dog and she is definitely not amused. She is definitely having "A Bad Day in Kansas." Dorothy has the support of the farmhands ("You Gotta Have Heart") but she's not a happy cornhusker, either.

That Kansas tornado drops Dorothy not in Oz but in Ozegon (pronounced "Ozygun," as we are frequently reminded). She meets the Scarecrow without a brain, the Tin Man without a heart and a Cowardly Lion and they all set out to find the Wizard of Ozegon — who resides on Wizard Island at Crater Lake — but that's where any resemblance to the classic story ends.

Director Giancarlo reassembled much of the original cast for this production. Emilee Yaakola is the perfect Dorothy with her cute face, adorable braids and belting voice. Chris Carwithen reprises his digitalized version of the Tin Man, constructed of obsolete computer parts. Carwithen has the mechanical voice down perfectly and, amazingly, never steps out of character. Scott Ford is back as the rather campy Cowardly Lion, swishing and growling, longing for courage and dressed once again as "the Sun King-meets-chenille-bedspread." Tony Kupsick is a charming and versatile Scarecrow. We can see poor Scarecrow's thinking processes evolve on his infinitely expressive face.

"The Wizard of Panto-Land" throws good witches, bad witches and a few wizards into the bargain. There is Glinda, the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the Midwest. But Dorothy also runs into the Wicked Witch of "Hansel and Gretel," Evilena of "Snow White" and Maleficent from "Sleeping Beauty." The witches, wizards and the torch-singing Auntie Em are all played by Mikey Perdue, last seen at the Cabaret in "S'Wonderful." Perdue has the presence to carry off the cross-dressing witches and the physically imposing wizards and also possesses a voice with a seemingly infinite range.

In a now-traditional bit of participation, the audience "becomes" Munchkins and are cued to sing "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" at appropriate (and frequent) moments.

When the ensemble does reach Wizard Island, they find the Wizard of Ozegon and the tale takes another unexpected turn. Without being too much of a spoiler, did you know that Hogwarts is actually on Wizard Island?

Giancarlo and Nordin created some lovely music — with distant nods to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Disney productions. Especially noteworthy are the torch song opener "A Bad Day in Kansas," the Tin Man's lyrical "Little Bird" and Dorothy's wistful "I Don't Know Where I'm Going."

Cabaret Resident Costume Designer Kerri Lea Robbins has livened up her original costumes, including that wonderful chenille fantasy for the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy's down-to-earth Kansas frock and the bit-of-everything-digital uniform for the Tin Man. Her infinite variety of witch and wizard robes and hats are spot-on. She has even provided proper fairy-tale attire for Meagan Iverson, the production's excellent onstage pianist.

Michael Halderman's haunting and magical backdrop, complete with references to Mount Ashland, Mount McLoughlin and Roxy Ann, also makes a return appearance.

"The Wizard of Panto-Land" plays at OCT through Dec. 31 with performances nightly at 8 p.m. except Nov. 18, 19, 25 and 28 and Dec. 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 24 and 25. Matinees are at 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. As always, dinner or brunch is available pre-performance with dessert available at intermission. For more information, call 541-488-2902 or go to www.oregoncabaret.com.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

Left to right: Chris Carwithen, Mikey Perdue and Tony Kupsick appear as Tin Man, Merlin and Scarecrow in Oregon Cabaret Theatre's production of “The Wizard of Panto-Land,” running through Dec. 31. Photo courtesy of Tom Lavine