Captain Hook Takes the Stage

By Chris Trela

Laguna Playhouse has tinkered over the years with various theatrical holiday offerings, but several years ago the playhouse firmly established a holiday tradition with its annual staging of a Christmas Panto courtesy of Lythgoe Family Panto.

Hold on—a panto?

In England, a panto, or pantomime, is an annual tradition unlike our stereotypes of a silent clown with a painted face that acts out, or mimes, some sort of scenario. The British panto is noisy, rowdy, and silly. It usually starts with a familiar fairy tale or a children’s story, then adds music, humor, contemporary references, and audience participation, where booing the villain and cheering the hero is encouraged. Pantos are perfect for all ages, with clever references flying over the heads of children to land squarely on the funny bone of adults.

The Lythgoe Family follows the British panto style but adds some American twists, including topical humor and popular pop songs. Lythgoe Family panto has presented four previous pantos at The Laguna Playhouse: “Beauty and the Beast: A Christmas Rose,” “Aladdin and His Winter Wish,” “Sleeping Beauty and her Winter Knight,” and “A Snow White Christmas,” all featuring notable actors from the worlds of TV and theater.

This year, Lythgoe Family Panto presents “Peter Pan & Tinker Bell: A Pirates’ Christmas,” which is described by the folks at Laguna Playhouse as “a singing, swashbuckling adventure performed in the high-flying style of a British holiday Panto. Take off on a wild quest with Tinker Bell, Wendy and Peter Pan as they try to put a stop to the plot of some dastardly pirates who plan to kidnap Peter as a present to Captain Hook. Filled with laughs, magic, dancers and contemporary songs by everyone from Taylor Swift to The Bee Gees, this family show has something for everyone.”

Among the many names involved with this production is someone well known to TV and theater audiences: John O’Hurley, who starred as J. Peterman on the hit TV comedy series “Seinfeld” for four years. He has also starred in the hit Broadway shows “Spamalot” and “Chicago,” hosted “Family Feud” for several years, and even competed on “Dancing with the Stars.”

In “Peter Pan & Tinker Bell,” O’Hurley plays Captain Hook, a role he originated in a Lythgoe Family Panto several years ago at the Pasadena Playhouse.

“This is the perfect family show,” said O’Hurley during a recent phone interview. “Most of the U.S. has never seen a British-style panto before. It allows children to be kids in the theater. The purpose is to allow them to interact with the actors on stage and pierce the fourth wall. They can boo, hiss, warn characters—anything they want to do is fair game. It lends an improvisational nature to the show.”

Rehearsing a show with so much improv can be challenging since the actors don’t have an audience to react to until the show opens, but O’Hurley said the actors have learned to leave “a little parenthesis until you are there in the moment. The adult parenthesis are there, too. The show is meant for all audiences. It’s a wonderful style, filled with contemporary music and contemporary choreography, written with a local feel to it and always tongue in cheek.”

Not surprisingly, O’Hurley is enjoying his time in Laguna Beach. In fact, Laguna Beach may become a home away from home for O’Hurley. He was the celebrity host of the Pageant of the Masters gala last summer, and in January, Laguna Playhouse will be doing a musical stage adaptation of O’Hurley’s popular book, “The Perfect Dog.” And he’ll be back at Laguna Playhouse in the spring to do his one-man show, “A Man with Standards.”

“That is a little one man show that I tour around,” said O’Hurley. “It’s a show I wrote that looks back at the time I grew up in the 50s and 60s, the musical standards, the great American songbook. I grew up in the shadow of men who had standards. The gentlemen. My father was one of them. I recollect the days of dinner and dancing, supper clubs, and the music that went along with it. I take the music of Sinatra and Mancini, and use it to underscore the stories of my life during that period. I am a storyteller at heart.”

And of course, he loves the story he’s telling at Laguna Playhouse.

“I’m looking forward to the experience, not only on the stage of one of the great playhouses in America, but I’m enjoying the community at one of the great oceanfronts in America. How can I be happier for the holidays?”