By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Laguna Playhouse is where the Lythgoe family creates an all-new family-oriented show each year at Christmastime, Americanizing the traditional British panto – a combination of theater and music hall.
And since each show gets its world premiere in Laguna, the original scripts always contain plenty of playful references to not just that beautiful city, but others in Orange County.
This time around it’s “The Wonderful Winter of Oz,” Lythgoe Family Panto’s version of L. Frank Baum’s classic “The Wizard of Oz” that runs at Laguna Playhouse through December 29.
You might think, from the show’s title and “A Holiday Panto” subtitle, that the new work would place the famed story’s beloved characters into a holiday scenario. Surprisingly, Kris Lythgoe’s script is essentially a faithful stage adaptation of “Oz,” so familiar to millions via the 1904 book and the renowned 1939 film version.
Yet, aside from references to the Wicked Witch of the West’s plans to cancel Christmas, and the performance of a couple of Christmas songs at the show’s tail end, the winter holidays don’t much figure in.
Now, here’s the good news: “The Wonderful Winter of Oz” is still a top-notch show, with the first-rate production elements we’ve come to expect from the Lythgoe company and, of course, from the Playhouse. The hallmark of this “Oz” is its slick professionalism, and in this case, “slick” is meant as a positive.
Scriptwriter Kris Lythgoe is also the producer with Bonnie Lythgoe as director, Andrew Street musical director and Mason Trueblood as choreographer.
Their work across the board couldn’t be better, and that goes for the show’s cast, too.
The visual and technical elements are equally solid. The combined work of Aaron Rhyne and Kevan Loney’s scenic design, Haven Hanson’s costumes, Crystal R. Shomph’s lighting and Ian Scot’s sound borders on being cinematic.
The general palette of the opening scenes in Kansas is sepia-toned, a nod to the 1939 film. A lively hoedown number introduces us to farmhands Curley (Matthew Patrick Davis) and Elmo (Andrew Metzger).
The ill-tempered Miss Gulch (Ashley Bruce) threatens to capture Toto, prompting Dorothy (Olivia Sanabia) to run away from home.
A twister strikes, pulling the house off its foundation and depositing it into the magical land of Oz. The residents of Munchkinland hail Dorothy a hero for killing their despotic ruler, the Witch of the East.
Dorothy gains an enemy, the witch’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Bruce) – but she also gains allies, including Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Desi Dennis-Dylan) and, later, the Scarecrow (Davis), Tin Man (Doran Butler) and Lion (Metzger).
The familiar story unfolds as the quartet of new friends treks to the gleaming Emerald City to find the Wizard of Oz (Barry Pearl), who promises help if they bring him the Wicked Witch’s broom.
Of course, they realize this means they’ll have to kill her, setting up the final showdown.
The script drops extraneous scenes to keep the running time tight and to make room for 15 musical numbers and new, original dialogue – for example, an exasperated Dorothy repeatedly insisting that killing the Witch of the East “was an accident!” The emphasis on comedy makes this version of “Oz” lighthearted and humorous.
While the script is entirely faithful to its source, it’s also sly and knowing, with many a contemporary reference cannily planted. Those that kids don’t recognize will be appreciated by the adults on hand.
The characters tell us up front that the form of panto involves audience participation. The fourth wall dissolves and we partake of the fun by becoming part of the show. Late in Act Two, six children are brought onto the stage, interacting with Scarecrow and Lion and returning to their seats with a gift bag of holiday goodies.
While Sanabia, Bruce and Dennis-Dylan provide the strongest pop vocals, not a weak link exists in terms of the entire cast’s singing and dancing.
Sanabia is a forceful Dorothy who takes no guff from anyone. With her stirring vocals, she makes the immortal song “Over the Rainbow” her own. Bruce is no old crone, but, rather, a young and attractive Witch. In that role, she’s silkily villainous, but more or less lovably so, while Dennis-Dylan’s easygoing, laid-back Glinda nicely contrasts with Bruce’s fevered theatrics as the baddie.
Davis is a pleasingly agile, loose-limbed Scarecrow, and Pearl’s Wizard is formidable and intimidating and, once he’s exposed as a phony, morphs into being warm, kind and supportive.
In his role of the Lion, Metzger is the production’s obvious star. The actor eschews Bert Lahr’s trembling timidity, instead more closely resembling the stage persona of Nathan Lane. This Lion is the most boisterous character on hand, and with his stage presence and natural comic timing, Metzger walks away with his every scene.
The octet of youngsters in the chorus fulfill multiple roles and must be commended for providing song-and-dance skills equal to those of the production’s stars.
Street’s onstage keyboard work provides the musical accompaniment that keeps this show moving. Lythgoe shows always feature rock scores, and this production gives us memorable renditions of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Dancing in the Street,” “On Top of the World” and “Both Sides Now.”
Like previous Lythgoe-Laguna productions, “The Wonderful Winter of Oz” is aimed at kids and teens, but we dare say their parents and grandparents will also enjoy this wonderfully fun version of the Baum classic.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through December 29. Running time (including intermission): Two hours. Tickets: $36 to $71. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, lagunaplayhouse.org.