Contributing Critic - Toronto
What does a typical pre-theatre agenda look like? Perhaps a medium rare steak and a bottle of merlot at your favourite lighting challenged restaurant. This night was different – a grilled cheese sandwich, strawberry milkshake and a sundae! A perfect gastronomic pairing for Ross Petty’s The Wizard of Oz running through January 5 at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. After all it’s a kid’s show and we know that going in.
Pantomimes, historically from Victorian England, are meant to be happy diversions near the holiday season for children and surrounding adults alike. By flaunting more academic theatre convention, the panto elevates us above the rush of the holidays with charm and robust, side splitting comedy. This send up of Frank L. Baum’s classic achieves all this and more.
The conventions of pantomime include garish characters, jokes – both clever and inane, audience participation, local references and upbeat song and dance. Even a more conservative theatre goer would admit that this list requires superb talent, writing and design. Mr. Petty has pulled together a group that meets this standard.
Cory Sincennes’ set begins with a bold neon layered proscenium of primary colours. This immediately sets us apart from the real world and the big colours become a motif through both the costumes and the stunning projections of Cameron Davis. Costume highlights include a saucy skunk with fabulous boots and the entire Emerald City scene that contrasted funky euro-strange hair with dour faces.
The cast is a young group of talent with sizeable energy and professional precision. Their challenge was to range through an encyclopedia of musical genres from rock to hip hop to barn-burning torch songs. Sara-Jeanne Hosie leads this group with strong versatility as the witchy Sulphura. The villain always garners plenty of attention just being evil, but Ms. Hosie backs that up with a voice for big song authority. Daniel Williston, as the Lion, displayed equal versatility with physical precision and a strong voice. The veteran Eddie Glen played the servant who has flashes of independence which requires the brilliant timing and comic skills he always demonstrates. Mr. Glen launched into a very Trumpian Trump thrilling all age sectors of the audience.
Stereotypes, usually an anathema to theatre, become a convention in the pantomime. Michael De Rose, playing the wistful, but clumsy Sugarbum does not allow his character to get bogged down with any kind of subtlety . Full throttle energy from start to finish is punctuated with a big solo in the second act affirming his confidence. After each performance, Mr. De Rose deserves to be the first one in the hot tub! Camille Eanga-Selenge is charming as Dorothy, bringing a smart, more mature interpretation to the iconic role, and, of course, great singing and dancing.
Choreography in this production is also big. As was the challenge with music, performers moved through a variety of genre such as disco or hip hop. Director and choreographer Tracey Flye, with an enormous resume, and Jennifer Mote (dance captain) took full advantage of the young talented ensemble. A highlight was the clever twist of branches enveloping our heroes until they managed to jitterbug free.
Local references and political pokes are always an audience favourite. The creative twister jokes were popular as were the skewering of local politicians and some saucy adult innuendo. Some references were a stretch such as the connection between Sarah Huckabee and fajitas – that necessitated a bit too much CNN homework.
Olive, as Toto, cannot be left out. She charmed the audience with excitable tail wags and barking during the finale – hard to tell if she truly was happy with the success of our heroes or just wanted to get home to her quiet bed. This pantomime is a rib smacking evening of fun for grandchildren, grandparents and everyone in between. Forget the fancy steaks and Chablis. This is an opportunity for youth to experience theatre. For the young theatre goer, the vaulted cathedrals of tragedy such as King Lear and Madame Butterfly will come soon enough. For now, let’s get them in the building and immerse them in some magic.
The Wizard of Oz – the Pantomime
Cast featuring: Eric Craig, Michael De Rose, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Eddie Glen, Sarah-Jeanne Hosie, Matt Nethersole, Daniel Williston.
Creative Staff: Ross Petty – Producer, Tracey Flye – Director and Choreographer, Cory Sincennes – Set and costume designer, Peter McBoyle – Sound Design, Kimberly Purtell – Lighting Designer, Chris Porter – Stage Manger, Joseph Tritt – Music Director, Matt Murray – Writer.
Runs at the Elgin Theatre,189 Yonge St. Toronto. November 30, 2018 to January 5, 2019. Find tickets at rosspetty.com. Prices range from $27 to $99 can.
Photo: Eddie Glen as Randy, Olive as Toto and Sara-Jeanne Hosie as Sulphura. Photo by Racheal McCaig