‘The Wizard of Oz: A British Pantomime’ is a delightful holiday romp

The traditionally British holiday panto meets the very American story of 'The Wizard of Oz' in The British Players' delightful production.

True confession time: Until this weekend, I had never seen a British panto. Of course, I was familiar with the theater form. Pantos (short for pantomimes) are theatrical events that pair popular stories with jokes, song and dance, exaggerated characters, and lots of audience participation. Pantos are a big deal during the holiday season in Britain but are less well known in the U.S., which is a shame because pantos are a fun, loud, and raucous way to experience theater. In other words: a great option for families looking for fun this holiday season.

Dorothy (Allison Meyer), Lion (Meghan Williams Elkins), Scarecrow (Kathy Suydam), Toto (Amanda Dullin-Jones), and Tin Man (Francis Hoag). Photo by Kim Harmon Photography.

The British Players’ production of The Wizard of Oz: A British Pantomime is no exception. People of all ages packed the auditorium the day I was there. Early in the show’s opening number, we were told that audience participation wasn’t suggested, it was delightfully mandatory. Throughout the show, characters encouraged the audience to yell out, boo, or cheer for them. And cheer they did.

Written by Emma Houldershaw and Samantha Cartwright, this is not the musical version of The Wizard of Oz that you have likely seen on stage or screen. Yes, it has songs, and yes, your favorite characters are there — including Dorothy and Toto, the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow — but they are joined by an array of additional characters who amp up the humor of the show. There is Harry Trotter, a kind farmer who is sweet on Dorothy. As he makes his way through Oz, everyone he meets confuses him with Harry Potter, a gag that gets progressively funnier the more times it happens (the confusion is compounded by the fact that he is dressed like Harry Potter — if Harry Potter lived on a Kansas farm). Mark Crimans plays Trotter with delightful comedy and strong vocals.

Then there are Salt and Pepper: a hip-hop duo who join Trotter in searching for Dorothy once she is lost in Oz. The duo’s rap to the iconic “Push It” — renamed “Pop It” with new lyrics specific to the show — is a high point in the production’s hilarity. Clare Palace as Salt and Sarah Leembruggen as Pepper are like a hip-hop, Cockney-accented Abbott and Costello. Their big number induces many justly earned guffaws.

Many of the songs, in fact, are classics with lyrics modified to fit the Wizard of Oz story. (Additional lyrics by Chuck Hoag, Neil McElroy, and Missi Tessier.) Don’t worry: Dorothy (delightful soprano Allison Meyer) still sings “Over the Rainbow,” but most of the other songs are classics from a variety of eras past and present: “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing is notched in there, as well as “Whatever Lola Wants” from the 1950s musical Damn Yankees. This version of the classic tune, however, is restyled as “Whatever Witchy Wants” and is sung by the fierce Missi Tessier, whose cackling filled the auditorium every time her energetic presence hit the stage.

Missi Tessier as The Witch in The British Players’ production of The Wizard of Oz: A British Panto. Photo by Kim Harmon Photography.

Another high point of the show — and another classic song — was Amanda Dullin-Jones as Dorothy’s dog, Toto. Throughout much of the first act, Dullin-Jones gave a spectacular wordless performance (she is a dog after all). Even without words, Dullin-Jones conveyed high-spirited humor that made it clear she belonged on that stage. But her big moment comes near the end of Act One when she breaks out into song (and encourages the audience to applaud her. She is now a talking dog, after all!) with the number “My Heart Belongs to Dottie.”

One element of British pantos is a cross-dressing cast member who acts as the “pantomime dame.” The tradition is carried out here with the Aunty Em character, played by Chuck Hoag. Hoag acts as a kind of stand-up comic, peppering the audience with groan-inducing puns like “all my cows blew away. It was an udder disaster!” (Hoag also served as the show’s music director).

Kudos are due to Director Nicola Hoag for this top-notch production. The costumes (designed by Justine Crimans) alone are worth the price of admission, from Salt and Pepper’s checkered pants to the Tin Man’s silvery ensemble. Also of note were Dorothy’s quick costume changes, including a dress that turns kaleidoscopic once she crosses the rainbow, and ruby slippers that suddenly appear on her feet without her leaving the stage.

Mark Crimans as Harry Trotter and Chuck Hoag as Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz: A British Panto. Photo by Kim Harmon Photography.

A large cast of Munchkins completed the cast with lively dancing choreographed by Shannon Cron. Live music (led by Sue Mason McElroy) accompanied the performers, and a large screen projected images of tornados and Oz to amplify the experience. Murals depicting rainbows and poppies sat on either side of the screen, while Oz’s yellow brick road came in the form of steps leading down from the stage, allowing the actors to walk through the auditorium (set design by Nicola Hoag, Chuck Hoag, and Mike Lewis). Steve Deming’s lighting created an additional part of the yellow brick road, while Sarah Katz’s sound design ensured that everything was crystal clear. Makeup was by Cathy Dunn and stage management was by Matt Mills.

This production is a delightful antidote to more formal holiday events. If fun is on your agenda — or your kids can’t sit through the Nutcracker — The Wizard of Oz: A British Pantomime is just the ticket for holiday joy.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Wizard of Oz plays through January 8, 2022, at Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For more information or to buy tickets ($28 adult, $15 child under 12), go online.

COVID Safety: Ticketholders agree to follow any and all COVID-19 mitigation protocols in place at the venue. These could include, but not be limited to, wearing an approved face-covering, providing proof of COVID-19 vaccination status, and maintaining CDC recommended social distancing. See more details about this policy here.

Full Cast
Allison Meyer: Dorothy
Kathy Suydam: Scarecrow
Meghan Williams Elkins: Lion
Francis Hoag: Tin Man
Colin Davies: Wizard
Missi Tessier: Wicked Witch/ Mrs. West
Tia-Monet Flores: Glinda
Chuck Hoag: Auntie Em (Dame)
Clare Palace: Salt
Sarah Leembruggen: Pepper
Amanda Dullin-Jones: Toto
Mark Crimans: Harry Trotter
Lisa Singleton: Munchkin 1
Ellen Kaplan: Munchkin 2
Molly Ross: Lumberjack/ Team Munchkin/ Poppy
George Hoag: Team Munchkin/ Crow
Lauren Pacuit: Team Munchkin
Lily Pacuit: Team Munchkin/ Poppy
Mallory Leembruggen: Team Munchkin/ Wizard’s Guard
Charlotte Leembruggen: Team Munchkin/ Poppy
Matt Craun: Team Munchkin
Sophia Douoguih: Team Munchkin/ Poppy
Tristian Singleton: Team Munchkin/ Crow

Production Staff
Director: Nicola Hoag
Music Director/ Original song composer & lyricist/ Musical Arrangements/ Auntie Em: Chuck Hoag
Producer: Sara Cath
Stage Manager: Matt Mills
Choreographer: Shannon Cron
Lighting Designer/ Projections: Steve Deming
Sound Designer: Sarah Katz
Costume Designer: Justine Crimans
Hair and Make-up Designer: Cathy Dunn
Properties Designer: Bonnie O’Leary
Set Design: Chuck Hoag, Nicola Hoag, Mike Lewis
Pianist: Sue Mason McElroy
Master Carpenter: Mike Lewis
Box Office Manager/ COVID Compliance Officer: Colleen Darling
Business Manager: Sara Cath
Technical Director: Matt Mills
Lighting Crew Chief/ Board Operator: Peter Nerenstone
Assistant Stage Manager/ Assistant Producer: Nicola Willis-Jones
Assistant Sound Board Operator: Tyler Singleton
Assistant Properties Design: Pam Gannon
Costume Crew: Justine Crimans, Penny Hannallah, Nicola Hoag
Make-up Crew: Cathy Dunn, Linda Wilson
Lighting Crew: Alice Drew, Frankie Lewis, Ed Vilade, Lee Zahnow
Stage Crew/Properties Mistress: Caitlin O’Leary
Scenic Artists: Albert Coia, Guy Palace, Claire Sharp
Stage Layout/ Scenic Design Concepts: Mike Lewis
Program and Publicity Materials, Graphics Design: Matt Mills
Program Coordinator: Frankie Lewis
Dance Captain: Lisa Singleton
Additional Choreography: Tia-Monet Flores
Lyric Writing Team: Chuck Hoag, Neil McElroy, Missi Tessier
Photography: Kim Harman
Lobby Display: Nicola Hoag
Front of House Manager: Sara Cath
Transportation Coordinator: Chuck Hoag
Audition Desk: Lauren Pacuit, Nicola Willis-Jones
Audition Pianist: Sue Mason McElroy
Rehearsal Pianists: Arielle Bayer, Sue Mason McElroy, William Powell III
Set Construction and Painting: Dave Bradley, John Barclay Burns, Albert Coia, Colin Davies, Steve Deming, Les Elkins, Meghan Williams Elkins, William Kolurobetz, Chrish Kresge, Sarah Leembruggen, Mike Lewis, Peter Nerenstone, Lauren Pacuit, Clare Palace, Guy Palace, Missi Tessier, Nicola Willis-Jones, Bill Wisniewski
Front of House Staff: Angela Cannon, Malcolm Edwards, Sue Edwards, Pauline Griller-Mitchell, Penny Hannallah, Anna Harrold, Sue Harrold, Debra Hoag, Sara Kane, Chrish Kresge, Harlene Leahy, Ann Lung, Emilia O’Connor, Susan Paisner, Carol Strachan
MCPS Student Volunteers: Kylie Austin-Vaias, Jannah Bilker, Chloe Brown, Dylan Brown, Alana Cooper, Trevor Do, Chris Donadio, Adiela Ephrem, Eleora Ephrem, Bella Forgione, Horton Keng, Belia Lemelin, Morgane Reed-Roth, Chloe Schaffran, Nina Shah, Binyam Tezera, Linnea Wurdack, Elias Zogby

2 COMMENTS

  1. The Wizard of Oz by the British Players was horribly racist, and I am disappointed in DC Metro Theater Arts for not identifying it as such. Here is a factual description of the show that I take issue with, and because it’s apparently necessary, I will explain afterwards why this is blatantly, unequivocally, and unacceptably racist.

    Midway through the show, one of the actors announces that in this show, the Wicked Witch of the West will not have flying monkeys as her henchmen, but “thugs.” The two “thugs” then enter onstage. They are two middle aged to senior white British women dressed in black and white checkered “hammer pants,” black open leather jackets, oversized gold chains around their necks holding rainbow pop-its as the charm (a popular kids fidget toy), and hats with sideways ponytails much like Salt-n-Pepa in the “Push It” video. The characters strut onto the stage, perform a parody of “Push It” called “Pop It,” complete with dance moves like hooking their feet and jumping around in a circle, and introduce themselves with a series of typical panto jokes. They tell the audience their names are “Salt and Pepa.” They bow and scrape to the Wicked Witch of the West who threatens to kill them if they don’t kill Dorothy. She then describes Dorothy for them. They immediately misremember every detail. They go in the wrong direction when given directions, and bump into each other repeatedly. Even after they make friends with Auntie Em and Dorothy’s love interest “Harry,” and finally figure out they are hunting down the same person their friends are trying to save, they decide to save their skins and kidnap the girl for the Wicked Witch of the West. They later have a guilty conscience and decide to help her.

    HERE’S WHY IT’S RACIST. First off, referring to characters dressed as Black people as “thugs” is a loaded term which associates Black people with criminals. This association has historically bee used to justify the disproportionate violent policing and incarceration of Black people.
    Secondly, associating the only hip-hop characters in the show with monkeys plays off a long-standing racist tradition of considering Black people as closer to monkeys than humans.
    And thirdly… White people dressing up as Black people is always sticky territory, because it’s almost always based on stereotype rather than a deep understanding or appreciation of the culture being imitated. Moreover, there is a long-standing history of minstrel shows in which white people dressed up as Black stereotypes to make fun of Black people and paint them as inferior. This show does both. Not only does the show appropriate Hip-Hop culture, but specifically portrays the two Hip-Hop characters as intellectually and morally inferior to their white culture counterparts. No other characters in the show are assigned nearly the same level of stupidity and moral corruption, and they are directly juxtaposed with the wholesome white farmers trying to help innocent white Dorothy. Any time white people are appropriating Black culture, they can expect to be under scrutiny, because of the history of minstrelsy as well as the deep history of oppression and the current systems which persist to perpetuate white power (voter suppression, community segregation, inequality in property values, disproportionate imprisonment, white-centric curriculum,etc.). One might argue, as some do, that it’s NEVER acceptable for a white person to dress as a Black rapper, but even if you think it’s acceptable in some cases, that’s because the person in costume is deliberately communicating respect for the celebrity, historical figure, or rapper that’s being portrayed. Under no circumstances is it appropriate for a white person to dress as a Black celebrity and then proceed to degrade the intelligence and moral character of that persona. It doesn’t matter whether it was deliberate or an unconscious racist habit. It’s not okay. Not remotely. It is my dearest hope that the British Players in Kensington, MD, US reflect on this moment, learn from it, and do better moving forward.

    • Hi Diana, Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. I will admit that I did not see these characters through the lens you describe, and I apologize for that as a reflection of white privilege on my part. I interpreted the characters, with their exaggerated Cockney accents, more as a reflection of stereotypes in the British class system. But everything you say about the characters rings true and I will share your comments with the British Players.

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