Skip to main content

REVIEW: You’d have to be a grinch not to like Lighthouse Festival’s Jack and the Beanstalk

/By / Dec 14, 2023

Imagine yourself in an audience full of giddy people of all ages caroling, laughing, and cheering on demand. 

Some might just call this level of audience participation a total theatre fantasy, completely unachievable in today’s cold, unfeeling world — but magically, that’s exactly what I found at the Lighthouse Festival’s production of Jack and the Beanstalk: The Panto by Ken MacDougall. Children were pointing and calling out to the cast, barely able to stay in their seats. The adults in the room were just as engaged, joyfully laughing at themselves and the kids for having such a good time, as much as the hilarious antics happening on stage. As one man said loudly to no one in particular when the show’s standing ovation came to an end: You’d have to be a real grinch not to like that!

This new spin on the well-known coming-of-age folktale Jack and the Beanstalk pits small town charm against big business greed. This is especially evident in William Chesney’s set, which skillfully contrasts a fairy-tale farm aesthetic against cold corporate modernity. In a time where lakeside communities like Port Dover and Port Colborne are experiencing rapid growth and change, it’s an apt choice to make this panto’s Villain (Cyrus Lane) the Giant’s CEO whose office is found out of reach for the common man — at the top of the story’s famous beanstalk. The Giant is more of a comedic, Schwarzenegger-inspired bit of muscle (achieved through dramatic sound and lighting cues) rather than the ferocious child-eating monster from the original tale.

The night I attended, artistic director Derek Ritschell came onstage with actor Julie MacLeod moments before the show was about to begin. I found myself feeling extremely anxious on MacLeod’s behalf as they announced she just found out that day she would be taking over as Fairy MC — one of the biggest roles in the entire show. I can just imagine what an adrenaline-packed day she must have had learning full song and dance numbers, plus a play’s worth of blocking, in just a few short hours. This immediately put me on Fairy MC’s side despite her being on book, and I don’t think I was alone. In the audience I felt a sense of collective support for the play’s narrator even before the show began which, thanks to MacLeod’s likable soft confidence as an entertainer, was sustained throughout the entire show. 

The group buy-in for the production’s success was also helped by the fact that as MacLeod was learning her role as our narrator, we were learning our role as the audience too. Folks who frequent pantos will tell you this type of show doesn’t let you get away with sitting back and passively taking it all in. The audience’s collaboration in many ways is the driving force or “the most important ingredient” to any successful panto as director Jonathan Ellul says in his program director’s note. That means getting us on board early is the name of the game. 

The generous team behind the show built in easy-to-follow and entertaining instructions for how to join in on the fun. Special kudos to Jack’s Mum Dame (Sal Figliomeni) and Jack’s Brother Simon (Stephen Ingram, also the music director and keyboardist) for taking on the responsibility of prompting the audience with care and gusto, especially while Fairy MC was busy finding her way. And big ups as well to the Dame and Simon duo for giving us many successful musical moments in the show. At one point they impressively get the entire audience to sing a round of well-loved carols. The idea of writing the play’s music director into the script as Simon certainly pays off and offerd some of the most witty meta-theatrical moments, including a particularly well-timed and self-aware joke that calls attention to the show’s exclusive use of music available in the public domain. 

My favourite number was the duet between Dame and King directly after intermission, because it brought me right back under the play’s irresistible spell. Here, Figliomeni’s dame drag persona masterfully walks that difficult campy line somewhere between sincerity and satire. This is helped by Alex Amini’s costumes and Kiri-Lyn Muir’s choreography, which both thoughtfully compliment Figliomeni’s strengths. There’s certainly much to unpack in the historical portrayals of panto dames, as likely descendants from Italian sixteenth century commedia dell’arte clown characters and eventually performed in the UK tradition of pantos since the early nineteenth century. What I find particularly significant and absolutely worth mentioning is the beloved presence of these drag performers as a fixture in children’s entertainment for hundreds of years. Today some historians and critics are asking, in past portrayals were audiences laughing at or with panto dames? And what is their legacy today? In Lighthouse’s first panto, I think the audience works with Figliomeni to find the joy in Dame’s tongue-in-cheek style of humour. Plus, MacDougall’s script takes the time to explain this characters’ importance in the lineage of pantos and even gives Dame room to elicit a little audience empathy.

If you haven’t been to a panto before, this is a good one to try. The team will make sure you know who gets a loud boo, who gets a cheer, what jokes deserve a groan, and when to warn the hilarious trio of Jack (Eliza-Jane Scott), the King (Allan Cooke), and the Princess (Katie Edwards) that the monster is “behind you!” 

The children seemed to especially love booing Lane as the Villain, probably because he seemed to revel in their dislike for him. The more they booed, the more fun he had and the more wonderfully horrible he became. Plus, this Jeff Bezos wannabe was full of punny local jokes which were clearly crowd-pleasers.

In many ways, this show really shouldn’t work. It’s a holiday show performed by a summer stock theatre company, reportedly the first pantomime the area has ever seen, and the play’s narrator was replaced at the last minute by a brand-new actor with script in hand. Thankfully and with the help of a good dose of festive cheer, the talented creative team led by Ellul turned this potentially risky endeavor into an enormously fun family show that should be on everyone’s list this holiday season. 

Jack and the Beanstalk closes on Dec. 17 in Port Colborne. You can learn more about the production here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Taylor Marie Graham

Taylor Marie Graham

Taylor Marie Graham (she/her) is a Dora nominated writer, theatre artist, and educator living in Cambridge, ON / Haldimand Tract. At the University of Guelph, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is currently a Doctoral Candidate writing an analysis of the Blyth Festival Theatre. Both Taylor’s artistic and academic work often explores rural feminisms and the decolonization of bodies in space.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.

REVIEW: Age Is a Feeling aches with tenderness and love

Age Is a Feeling is a warm hug for whoever might need it.

By Aisling Murphy
Production shots of the Stratford Festival shows reviewed below: Hedda Gabler, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet. iPhoto caption: Production shots by David Hou.

REVIEW: Straightforward concepts, stripped-down sets, and strong performances define Stratford’s approach to the canon this year

Throughout Stratford’s productions of Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Hedda Gabler, moments of actorly playfulness jolt us into the here and now.

By Liam Donovan
stratford festival iPhoto caption: Production shots by David Hou.

REVIEW: Stratford boasts a flair for the dramatic in two terrific musicals and a spooky take on Shakespeare

All in, this was a very strong opening week for Stratford, but seriously, go see the musicals!

By Aisling Murphy
iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.

REVIEW: The Wrong Bashir is an ode to the hyphenated identities of Canada

Quibbles on the show's comedy aside, The Wrong Bashir will stay with me for a while as a successful ode to hyphenated identities across Canada. 

By Eleanor Yuneun Park
iPhoto caption: Photo of Come Home — The Legend of Daddy Hall by Cylla von Tiedemann.

REVIEW: The Legend of Daddy Hall feels like coming home

Home is not a place, it’s a feeling, and Come Home — The Legend of Daddy Hall feels like I came home. I was taken on a journey watching this play and came out honoured to be a witness to such an incredible story. I encourage you to do the same.

By Aisha Lesley Bentham
beaches the musical iPhoto caption: Photo of Beaches the Musical by Trudie Lee.

REVIEW: Beaches the Musical is spine-tingling and tender

If you have a yen for catchy tunes, love stories, and everything else that makes the most successful Broadway productions so memorable and universal, invite your bestie to Theatre Calgary to see Beaches the Musical. 

By Jacqueline Louie