While at musical theatre school, a sage instructor once said to me: “if you’re having fun, the audience is having fun.”
Ross Petty’s final holiday season pantomime, Peter’s Final Flight, tests this law of live performance and proves it to be correct. The team who brought this Peter Pan pantomime sequel to the stage must be having a blast, because the joy of the experience of live theatre was palpable from the audience from start to finish at the performance I saw on Saturday afternoon.
Ross Petty has been bringing the joy of live theatre to Toronto audiences for twenty-five years with his tried and true recipe for holiday fun. The pantomimes, which follow the tradition of holiday performances in Britain, incorporate topical humour, unscripted comedy, high-energy pop songs (such as “Eye of the Tiger,” “Toxic,” “Dear Husband,” and “Neverland” in this production), contemporary choreography, and audience participation. This all adds up for silly, infectious, family entertainment.
This particular production is a sequel of the well-known J.M. Barrie story Peter Pan. The show begins with a rehearsal from the original Peter Pan, which in this version is being produced for the stage by Ross Petty, who plays himself. During a break in the rehearsal, the actor playing Peter Pan, also named Peter, is mistaken to be the real hero of Barrie’s original story and whisked off to Neverland by Petty Productions’ panto-regular Plumbum to save Neverland from the evil widow of Captain Hook: Helga Hook. Once in Neverland, the adventure — and hilarious antics, non-sequiturs, and comedy — ensue.
Following the tradition of British pantomimes, the audience is invited to participate throughout. Specifically, whenever the villains appear, the audience is prompted to boo loudly. Helga Hook comically responds to this cold reception by telling the audience to shut up — she is a mean one, after all. In Peter’s Final Flight, the audience is also prompted to keep Helga Hook from achieving her goal of destroying the heart of Neverland – the source of all joy and happiness in the universe – when she asks if she should open Plumbum’s fanny pack, where the heartless villain would find magical power that would make her unstoppable.
The best laughs in the show occur when the script touches on current events. Right before Plumbum dies, she makes a dying confession to absolve herself of her mortal sins: “I caused the Rogers outage,” she says with her final breath. She also remarks at one point that she hasn’t been this nervous since 2016. Erika asks, “Because of the U.S. election?,” to which Plumbum replies “No, because of the Full House reboot.” The Mermaids, from the lush lagoon of Barrie’s original text, appear in this production as the Kar-splash-ians, an obvious parody of the sisters of reality television fame.
A highlight of the production is Dan Chameroy, who expertly plays Plumbum, giving a masterclass in drag clowning. Dressed in a sparkling pink and green sequined dress, stockings, sneakers, her magical shiny pick fanny pack, and signature bulbous curled wig, Plumbum’s face, covered in white paint and big red lips, is comically distorted into an impossible number of different over-the-top expressions. Plumbum often begins scenes with ad lib lines which suggest the conversation which precedes it, unheard by the audience, was an inappropriate anecdote of some sort.
The current event topical comedy and audience participation is a success largely due to the fact the show is expertly performed and produced. The leads, Stephanie Sy as Erika/Wendy and Alex Wierzbicki as Peter, sing well and carry the simple-yet-cheesy story forward with sincerity, focus, and commitment. The ensemble, who play Peter Pan’s former gang “The Lost Ones,” the Kar-splash-ians, and other characters, all dance and sing with the high energy needed for theatre oriented to a young audience. Sara-Jeanne Hosie, who plays Helga Hook, nimbly plays for the audience and with the audience, reacting to the audience participation as one only can in live theatre. Eddie Glen’s Smee demonstrates that, after many years performing in Petty’s pantos, he is an expert in the art of improvised farcing and comic mugging.
The action unfolds on an impressive set by Michael Gianfrecesco, complemented by vibrant projections that make the night sky, the vortex between the real world and mythic Neverland, the jungles of Peter Pan’s homeland, and the Mermaid Lagoon immersive. Make no mistake, realism is not the goal in the panto: the set pieces are silly in their own obviously theatrical kind of way.
Bizarrely, though oddly in line with the parodying throughout the performance, the characters from the panto appear in screened commercials from the show’s title sponsors, once in the first act and then again in the second. Helga and Smee, who are on the hunt for the heart of Neverland, are filmed searching for it in the Toronto Star headquarters. There, they are instructed to look into the “Second Star from the right,” when they are directed to a table with several newspapers laying on a table. Plumbum and Hook later appear in a commercial for the Hilton Hotel in downtown Toronto.
Despite this commercialism, Peter’s Final Flight is a comic treat with heart. With Peter’s Final Flight, Petty says goodbye to producing the holiday panto after twenty-five years. Though it isn’t necessary for the plot, Petty sings Pank Anka’s lyrics made most famous by Frank Sinatra “And now, the end is near, and so we face the final curtain” from “My Way.” When the story is about to come to an end, and Plumbum has brought Peter and Erika back home safely, she happens to cross paths with Petty, playing himself as the producer of Peter Pan again, and mistakes him for the aged Peter Pan, which is such a fitting and touching recognition of Petty’s childlike love for the theatre.
On Saturday, a child in the audience, still taking the opportunity to participate in the show, yelled to Petty, “make more.” With this child’s demand for more, it is clear that Petty’s aim over the past quarter-century to instil the love of live theatre in young audiences has been a success.
Peter’s Final Flight runs at the Elgin Theatre through Jan. 7. Tickets are available here.