By May S. Ruiz
In keeping with their Christmas tradition of adapting the classics into family Panto events, the Lythgoes premiere ‘The Wonderful Winter of Oz’ at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium from December 15 to December 30, 2018.
This star-studded presentation headlines singer, actress, and dancer Mackenzie Ziegler as Dorothy, Tony Award winner Marissa Jaret Winokur as Glinda, Jared Gertner as The Scarecrow, Phil LaMarr as The Tin Man, and Yvette Gonzales-Nacer as The Wicked Witch of the West. The ‘Wonderful Winter of Oz’ is directed by Bonnie Lythgoe, choreographed by Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo, with book by Kris Lythgoe, and Michael Orland serving as musical arranger and supervisor.
A holiday version of America’s favorite modern fairy tale done in the style of a traditional British Family Panto, Dorothy gets swept away by a ‘freak’ blizzard on Christmas eve and lands in a world of munchkins and witches. Featuring songs from Imagine Dragons to Earth, Wind and Fire, it promises to delight people of all ages.
Gertner, who was in last year’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ is thrilled to be involved once more. He says, “I’m revisiting the role of Scarecrow which I played in 8th grade. In high school, I also did ‘The Wiz’ so this world has been with me for a long time. But Panto is a little bit bawdier and crazier so it would be exciting to find out how to play a character with no bones in his body.
“This is a story that made me so happy; I don’t think there’s anybody out there who doesn’t have an attachment to the story so I’m anticipating really great response from the audience. I was in their Panto last year, a fairy tale that’s familiar to everyone, but this is more immediate because it was a film made within the last century.”
“My son, who was two-and-a-half years old then, came to watch last year’s Panto and he absolutely loved it,” adds Gertner. “The thing about Panto is that people from 2 to 92 will enjoy it and I had never been involved with something like that. I think, in America, the closest thing we have to this performance style is the children’s theater.
“But this isn’t geared specifically for children – it’s for everyone – it just happens to be fun for kids. There’s humor in it that adults won’t get but kids will, and there will be jokes that children won’t cackle at but adults will. They also put contemporary music from the last 30 to 40 years, so on top of the story, the jokes, the slapstick, and the dancing, there are songs you hear on the radio.”
In addition to being The Scarecrow in the show, Gertner will also be hosting a segment called ‘The Golden Ticket.’ Gertner explains, “For an extra bit of money, you could buy your child a golden ticket. At the end of the show, I’ll bring them on stage and interview them. As you must have surmised, anything goes; we don’t rehearse it or discuss it beforehand. It’s a tradition they’ve done every year which, I think, is what people talk about the most.
“It’s really funny, when they told me last year that I was going to do this, I thought they would give me guidance before the show, but they didn’t. So I had to figure it out along the way. But it never was a disaster because kids are fun, open, and suggestible so I was able to steer the conversation where I wanted it to go.
“There was one day when I had a kid who was hard to manage and just kept saying rude things to me. But the interesting thing was, the audience was on my side – I could look at them and roll my eyes, and they were with me.”
The Lythgoes knew what they were doing when they asked Gertner to do the ‘Golden Ticket’ again this year. As Gertner says, “I think they chose someone with improv experience. That really helps because the kids who come up on stage could be as young as 4 and you never know what they’re going to say. One other thing that works for me is that I have a three-and-a-half year old at home and I spend all day playing with him and his friends … so interacting with kids that age feels right to me.
“While the danger with audience interaction is you don’t know which way it could go, it’s also an interesting challenge. I will let them steer a bit but I will be in control. That way, everyone feels they’re getting an original experience. The show changes when someone from the audience comes on stage … it becomes something different and fresh. I could never let my guard down but I enjoy the ride at the same time. I’ve been on Broadway and all over the world but doing the ‘Golden Ticket’ is one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had on stage.”
‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ brings an extra dose of excitement for Gertner. He discloses, “Kermit the Frog plays the wizard. Everyone loves Kermit – he’s an icon and an institution. And the thought of being on stage with Kermit makes me giddy. I sing ‘Rainbow Connection’ to my son, so it’s something close to my heart as well.”
When families watch this year’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ at the Civic Auditorium, they will go on a fantastic adventure along with Dorothy as much as they will relive their happiest childhood memories of growing up with Kermit and the Muppets. All of which makes for a Christmas experience that is at once exciting and heartwarming.