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10th of December 2018

Entertainment



Ross Petty and Rob Torr explain why we need Christmas pantos today more than ever | The Star

Petty works year-round to produce his family musicals in the English pantomime tradition, which have been playing at the Elgin for 23 years (and for six years before that at the Royal Alexandra Theatre).

Usually, he gives an upbeat address to his company on the first day of rehearsals; it was different this year, in response to the “oppressive negativity that’s coming out of the U.S.,” says Petty. “It’s invasive. The oppression doesn’t stop at the border; it comes into this country, it goes into all countries in the world.”

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Pantomime is always a combination of predictable and unpredictable: the stories are familiar, but part of the challenge for the creators — and fun for audiences — is interpreting them in new ways.

When I ask Petty how to get the balance right, he turns the question on its head: “My tradition is innovation! People come to my shows because they know they’re not going to see the Disney version of Snow White and Cinderella. Innovation is our major talking point and why people come to see our shows.”

This production’s Dorothy is Ottawa native Camille Eanga-Selenge, who’s been in both the Broadway and Australian companies of The Book of Mormon but will not be well known to Toronto audiences. “You’ve been all around the world,” Petty reports he said to her. “Now it’s time to spend some time in your own country.”

Petty also singles out veteran performer Eddie Glen, “16 years later still pumping out the old jokes.”

What Petty loves best are the moments each year when audiences tell him that their parents used to bring them to his shows and now they’re bringing their own children. “That to me is what makes it all worthwhile,” he says, “to have that kind of a legacy, so that the family tradition continues from generation to generation.”

Family memories are what inspired Torrent Productions’ Rob Torr to start producing pantos three years ago in the east end. While he was growing up in Ottawa, his English parents and grandparents took him to see a panto starring the British actor Lionel Blair.

“I’ll never forget it,” says Torr, “my grandfather laughing so hard he was in tears … Mom and Dad killing themselves too. It was a larger than life experience.”

They met Blair after the show and Torr says he still remembers the smell of greasepaint: “It was intoxicating. I was hooked.”

Torr is a Toronto-based actor; he first had the idea to produce a panto about 10 years ago and, looking for encouragement, wrote to Sir Ian McKellen, who was at that point playing the Dame in a panto in London, England. To Torr’s delight, McKellen wrote back: “He thinks panto’s why the theatre scene is so strong in the U.K.: everyone goes to panto when they are a kid,” says Torr.

Torr runs Torrent with his wife Stephanie Graham, a Dora Award-winning choreographer. It’s important to them to create opportunities for Toronto performers to stay home over the holidays and work, “so that we can celebrate with our neighbourhoods,” says Torr.

The larger goal is “a multi-generational community laugh,” he says. “In my experience we don’t have that as much anymore. There is no lesson being taught; I just want people to have fun together and it introduces audiences to live theatre.”

When asked to compare his approach to Petty’s, Torr says his shows are “nowhere near as grand.” While, as with Petty’s shows, there are Toronto-specific references, Torrent’s are “very local, almost very small town … I promote our local merchants, the shops around the corner in the east end.”

The Legion on Coxwell Ave. is “the perfect place for our panto,” says Torr. “We sing ‘O Canada’ before every show. I’m honoured we can do it there every year.”

So far, Torrent’s shows fall into the labour of love category — Torr and Graham have yet to break even — but audiences been growing steadily ever year.

As with Petty, Torr’s measure of success for his shows is their multi-generational appeal: “One of my neighbours came up to me after the first year in tears. I said, ‘Why? It’s meant to be funny!’ She said, ‘My daughter, who’s really stoic, is busting a gut on one side of me and my mom on the other side is doing the same thing. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this before.’”

The Wizard of Oz: A Toto-ly Twistered Family Musical plays at the Elgin Theatre through Jan. 5. See rosspetty.com or call 1-855-599-9090. Cinderella plays at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 1/42, 243 Coxwell Ave., Dec. 21 to 30. See torrentproductions.com for information.

Christmas Carols for every one

If you can’t make it out to a live show but still want to see a panto this year, you’re in luck: CBC and the Family Channel are broadcasting Ross Petty Productions’ 2017 production of A Christmas Carol: The Family Musical With a Scrooge Loose multiple times this holiday season, including Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. on CBC. See rosspetty.com for more information.

And if a live Christmas Carol is what appeals, you’ve got multiple options across the GTA and beyond. The Star asked a few notable companies what sets their versions of the classic Charles Dickens tale apart.

Campbell House Museum

Who: Adapted by Justin Haigh, directed by Sarah Thorpe

When: Dec. 12 to 22 at 160 Queen St. W., Toronto

Tickets: ChristmasCarolTO.com

Why it’s special: Not only does this immersive production allow audiences to step into the world of Victorian London (as embodied by the historic Campbell House Museum) and follow Scrooge on his journey, but it also refreshes the familiar tale with new characters, original music and a few other twists.

The Grand Theatre

Who: Adapted by Dennis Garnhum, directed by Megan Watson

When: Dec. 5 to 23 at 471 Richmond St., London, Ont.

Tickets: grandtheatre.com

Why it’s special: The core of our version of A Christmas Carol is the same wonderful tale, but with a female Scrooge this classic will evolve in ways that will ask our hearts to feel and minds to think differently about a story we know so well.

No Porpoise Productions

Who: A Christmas Carol Comedy, written by Katie Leamen, directed by Lynne Griffin

When: Now until Dec. 23 at Wychwood Theatre, 601 Christie St., Toronto

Tickets: noporpoiseproductions.com

Why it’s special: It’s just two guys — one guy plays Scrooge, one guy plays everybody else in an irreverent love note to Charles Dickens’ classic tale.

The Shaw Festival

Who: Adapted by Tim Carroll, directed by Molly Atkinson

When: Now until Dec. 23 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake

Tickets: shawfest.com or 1-800-511-7429

Why it’s special: What’s really magical about our production is that it’s not just about Scrooge. It’s about the entire company creating a world for Scrooge to be redeemed in.

Soulpepper Theatre

Who: Adapted by Michael Shamata, directed by Joseph Ziegler

When: Dec. 7 to 24 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto

Tickets: soulpepper.ca or 416-866-8666

Why it’s special: After 11 years, Soulpepper’s production of A Christmas Carol has become a Toronto holiday tradition. Audiences become part of the family in this classic play set intimately in the round. Free access to the Toronto Christmas Market included.

Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2

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