Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

wizard of oz

Wizard of Oz: The Panto at Drayton

Wizard of Oz: The Panto at Drayton Entertainment’s Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend, Ontario, is keeping a beloved tradition alive.

When impresario Ross Petty announced his retirement in 2019 after Peter’s Final Flight, there was a danger that pantomime might fade from the Canadian consciousness. That would be a shame.

Pantomime or “panto” is an English tradition of musical theatre in which a familiar fairy tale or children’s story serves as a launching pad for a madcap send-up of the source material. Popular songs take the place of original music, the mostly young audience is encouraged to cheer the heroes and boo the villain, and the humor is self-consciously schlocky with plenty of topical references and the occasional double entendre that will sail over the heads of the kids while titillating the adults.

Another defining characteristic of the form is the “pantomime dame,” a garish cartoon of a women played by a man with only the barest attempt at verisimilitude.

Drayton has done the occasional panto over the years and this installment rings blissfully true to form.

The story of Wizard of Oz: The Panto, lifted as it is from the 1939 Judy Garland classic, is well known, even to the youngest members of the audience, even with its locale shifted from Kansas to nearby Bayfield. And the cast is terrific.

I especially enjoyed Justin Bott, channeling his inner Dolly Parton as the pantomime dame, who here assumes the role of Auntie Em. Lia Luz, who has a very nice voice indeed, makes a most endearing Dorothy.

Dorothy’s trio of fellow travelers en route to see the wonderful Wizard of Oz on the Yellow Brick Road make for amiable companions. Teddy Moynihan is the loose-limbed Scarecrow. Will Jeffs as the Tinman contributes a sprightly tap number. And as the Cowardly Lion, Stacey Kay does a most credible Bert Lahr impression.

Billy Lake is the production’s second cross-dresser as the Wicked Witch; he acquits himself admirably, milking his boos shamelessly and dissolving most impressively. As Harry Trotter (not Potter!), a hired hand at Dorothy’s Bayfield farm, Tim Porter serves as a cheerful master of ceremonies and a love interest for Dorothy.

One of the nicest conceits of Wizard of Oz is to have the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys depicted as a pair of millennial TikTok “influencers” (Ben Skipper, who made such an impression in last season’s It Runs in the Family, and Stephanie Pitsiladis). Their schtick is great fun.

David Connolly has directed and choreographed very well indeed, making excellent use of a small ensemble and the dozen members of the “Children’s Chorus.” This chorus is far younger than the one that graces Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. Most of the kids look to be under eleven and one little girl can’t be more than five. They pop up throughout the proceedings playing everything from Munchkins to bugs. They are delightful.

Sets by Jean Claude Olivier, costumes by Rachel Berchtold, and lighting by Jeff JohnstonCollins all belie what is surely a modest budget.

The programme credits E Houldershaw and S Cartwright as co-playwrights but, curiously, provides no additional information.

Most important, Drayton is doing God’s work with this production of Wizard of Oz – exposing very young children to the magic of live theatre.

Wizard of Oz: The Panto plays through June 25, 2023 at Huron Country Playhouse. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Drayton Entertainment website.

(Image: Drayton Entertainment)

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