Oregon Cabaret Theatre's stunning production of "The Wizard of Panto-Land" was written, directed and choreographed by Artistic Director Jim Giancarlo. Based on "The Wizard of Oz," it glitters with sumptuous scenery, dazzling costumes and extraordinary acting talent. Giancarlo and I visited over coffee in the theater's posh restaurant overlooking the pop-out storybook stage.
EH: How was this theater formed?
JG: The whole thing started on this production of "Grease" at the Britt Festivals years ago. Paul Barnes was the director, I was the choreographer, Craig Hudson was the set designer. We founded this theater the following year. You look back on it, 28 years later, and it seems a little mythic. But at the time, you just put one foot in front of the other, like everything in life. It's only in retrospect that you see a pattern or understand the journey, like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." That's a journey.
One of the appeals of that story is that it's a hero's quest, an epic journey. It's the stuff that myth and great stories are made of. And it's a common story that we all share. Everybody alive today knows "The Wizard of Oz." It's an epic journey. Jean Houston has written a book called "The Wizard of Us." I'm anxious to read it, because it is such an epic myth. It's a rich thing to explore.
I'd always been attracted to the "Wizard of Oz" story, but how would it turn into a panto? I had the notion that on the yellow brick road, they could make detours. They could go off course and wander into other fairy tales by mistake. Once I had that, I knew I could turn it into a whole show with a panto edge.
EH: What is a panto?
JG: It's a crazy hodgepodge style of theater that comes from England. The story goes that, about 280 years ago, an English theater person went to Italy and saw the Comedia del Arte, and brought that whole notion back. Comedia del Arte was a very physical, stylized form of theater depending on broad physical humor and stock characters. And that style kept going and accumulating different English traditions in different eras. Panto has got a lot of elements of English Music Hall (which we call vaudeville) with elements of melodrama and political cabaret, throwing in local jokes, topical humor and audience participation. It's like a fruitcake. It's a bunch of elements, which appeals to a writer, because it gives you so much license; it's so much fun.
EH: How do you choose your plays?
JG: It has to feel fresh and fun. For the most part, this is the fun theater. This where people come to have a good time and drink wine and have dessert and be with their friends and enjoy themselves. We pick shows that are high on entertainment. Music is important.
EH: What do you look for in actors?
JG: Everybody here is a lead. They almost always have to be "triple threats" — strong actors who sing beautifully and dance really well, and sometimes play instruments. I'm looking for actors with tons of talent, charisma and great personal qualities. I want to work with people that have stellar personal qualities — that work well with others. As you know, theater is the ultimate cooperative art form.
"The Wizard of Panto-Land," with music by Eric Nordin, plays through Dec. 31 at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, at the corner of First and Hargadine in Ashland. Performances are nightly at 8 p.m. except Dec. 9, 10, 16, 17, 24 and 25. Saturday and Sunday brunch matinees are at 1 p.m. For Tickets and information call 541-488-2902 or visit www.oregoncabaret.com.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.