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BWW Review: PANTO WONDERFUL WIZARD Gets Silly at Stages Repertory Theatre

You can always expect certain things from theaters in Houston around the holidays. The Alley seems to re-stage A CHRISTMAS CAROL repeatedly and the ballet will inevitably perform THE NUTCRACKER once again, just to name two. Stages Repertory Theatre has made a December tradition out of their annual panto version of a popular fairy tale. This year they take on L. Frank Baum's THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, but opt to give it a post-election "Texas pride" spin. This is a great time for families at the theater, and the nice thing about this holiday series is every year it's a totally different story - unlike the usual offerings of Christmas favorites at other theaters. Stages re-invents OZ for a sardonic look at what 2016 means for America, all the while offering a fun, frothy musical on the surface. It's an odd mix of jabs at the federal government combined with a jingoistic love of all things Texas. It works though, and gosh darn it if it isn't fun!


Pantomime, or "panto" for short, is the art form of taking popular fairy tales and creating musical parodies that often have snide political observations hidden in them. It incorporates double entendre humor, where jokes might go over a child's head but register an inappropriate giggle from the adult patrons. It's an age-old tradition in England, and it was carried right on over to America early on as well. In pop culture terms, think SHREK as the best example of what panto can be, although that movie didn't get quite as political as panto often is. But that is the sense of humor we are dealing with here, a mix of the crass with the silly in equal dosage.

This is the ninth holiday pantomime for Stages, and this year it was written by Houstonian Rutherford Cravens and directed by Carolyn Johnson, who most patrons will ironically remember as Judy Garland in END OF THE RAINBOW (the world's most famous Dorothy Gale). They conspire to turn THE WIZARD OF OZ into a Texas pride piece that makes fun of the recent Trump/Clinton presidential race at the same time. Conservative values clash with post-modern sensibilities, and this time Dorothy has to figure out what her rainbow cultural aspirations mean when she's stuck in small-town Texas. It's wicked fun with cows taking on a parody of "It's Raining Men" for the twister sequence and Emerald City residents reshuffling Starship's painfully coy "We Built this City" for the mythical Oz-Tin. It doesn't hurt Stages has an amazing cast of comedians who can actually sing to take this WIZARD OF OZ spoof all the way to musical comedy nirvana.

The whole ensemble is great across the board, but there are standouts. Kyle Sturdivant breaks out of his Tamarie Cooper-mold to take on Aunt Em as Anne Richards and Glenda by route of Dolly Parton. He's so much fun to watch in his bearded, giddy drag that you can't help but giggle any time he appears. Kay Allmand plays the wickedest witch with abandon, and her take on a Nancy Sinatra classic is a hoot and a half. Joe Serpa Daniels is downright foxy in a lumber-sexual way as a bearded cowardly lion who can croon ABBA and hide behind anyone. Genevieve Allenbury gives bona fide English grace to Toto 2, and infuses an authentic British pantomime flavor to the evening. But perhaps best is the powerhouse vocalist MaryAnn Williams as our Dorothy, who can somehow take "God Bless Texas" and make it sound almost operatic. She's the right mix of soulful longing and wide-eyed wonder to make this trip in search of a wizard worth it. Everyone is awesome in a cast that is as diverse as anybody could ever hope for in 2016 when color, gender and size don't matter one bit when it comes to poking fun at Texas and America.

PANTO WONDERFUL WIZARD is the perfect holiday production - witty, hysterical, and a fun, light evening that will appeal to kids and their chaperones in equal measure. This isn't a heavy night at Stages, but rather an interactive melodrama that invites the audience to be a part of the silliness going on. You will know all the songs and find their reinvention chuckle-worthy. I can get behind this tradition and recommend it as one that you should certainly experience for something a little less familiar than Scrooge and Sugar Plum Fairies prancing about. It's a nice end to a bear of a year that certainly provides the cast with plenty to poke fun of throughout the evening. If only we were all as sensible as the prim and proper British Toto 2, the world would be a far better place.

PANTO WONDERFUL WIZARD runs through December 31 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Check showtimes carefully as this performance usually starts early in the evening and has many alternate matinee times. For more information, please call (713) 527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com.


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From This Author Brett Cullum