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.
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