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There's no place like Panto-Land

The opening chords of "Over the Rainbow" kickstart "The Wizard of Panto-Land" and synch us up instantly with the musical comedy's fantastical world. But that snippet of perhaps the best movie song of all time is just about the last time anything from L. Frank Baum's questing tale is played straight.

This time out Dorothy and her pals find themselves in Ozegon on the Yellow Brick Road to Crater Lake, where their ultimate destination is — what else? — Wizard Island.

Oregon Cabaret Theatre's new holiday musical comedy opened Friday at OCT in Ashland, an outrageous potpourri of twisted narrative, song, dance, wit and the eye-candy creations of designers Kerri Lea Robbins and Michael Halderman. It is the story of Oz as if rewritten by Rocky and Bullwinkle's Edward Everett Horton and directed by Monty Python.

In case we're not down with that yet, Auntie Em (Dante Maurice Sterling) camps it up in the first number, "A Bad Day in Kansas," in high heels and a torch singer's long gloves. Sterling is maybe 6-foot, 3 inches, has a big singing voice and is blessed with one of those elastic faces a la Mick Jagger or Lily Tomlin.

Dorothy (Emilee Yaakola), looking for Toto, is lifted by the tornado and deposited in Ozegon, where she enlists the help of the audience, whom she casts as Munchkins singing the follow-the-yellow-brick-road theme from "We're Off to See the Wizard."

By the time she meets the Scarecrow (Matthew Steven Lawrence), she's somehow stumbled into "Hansel and Gretel," and Sterling/Auntie Em has become that tale's witch. Dorothy quickly hooks up with a digital Tin Man (Chris Carwithen) — no heart, just a motherboard — and a chenille-clad Cowardly Lion (Scott Ford), whom she fears "could be a witch in lion drag."

The gang is soon confronted by the wicked Queen Evilena from "Show White," into which Sterling/Auntie Em has now mutated, seeking to get her hands — or maybe her feet — on Dorothy's ruby slippers.

If you've never seen English panto, "The Wizard of Panto-Land," directed by Jim Giancarlo with book and lyrics by Giancarlo and music by Eric Nordin, is a fun introduction. The traditional British holiday musical comedy (pantomime is not to be confused with mime) fractures familiar fairy tales, seasons them with lots of local references and presents them in music hall/drag-show style with lots of audience participation.

Panto is supposedly aimed at children but can be seen on at least two levels, with many of the jokes going over little heads. There's wizard humor in Sterling's character, and drag queen humor.

This "Wizard" often manages to combine several Panto elements into a single riff, as in the Wicked Witch of the Midwest's (sic) "unhealthy obsession with shoes." Or a signpost in the wilderness that seems to point to Grants Pass, Ashland, Medford, Crater Lake and the rural town of Merlin. Except that Merlin turns out to be Sterling/Em/Evilena now morphed into King Arthur's wizard.

Halderman's set looks understated in the first scene but turns out to be anything but. A fantastic creation of many moods and many flats, it may make you think of those pop-up books for children — on magical steroids. Robbins' costumes make use of found objects such as bubble-wrap, computer parts, chenille bedspreads and, of course, an oil funnel for Tin Man.

It is fruitless to look for any deep meaning in any of this. The plot is basically an excuse for some very talented actors to have some very silly fun with the audience. It's the meme of the inmates seizing the asylum, with the accompanying glee of breaking all the rules.

There is one non-silly song in the middle of all the mayhem, the lovely "I Don't Know Where I'm Going," sung by Dorothy and a Ferryman, on whose boat the gang takes an enchanted ride.

That comes late in our story, which moves quickly to yet another surprising twist, but there will be no spoiler here. And in the end, when you've gone over the rainbow there's only one place you're going to end up.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

From left, Chris Carwithen, Scott Ford, Emilee Yaakola and Matthew Steven Lawrence (sitting). - Photo by Christopher Briscoe