The Lythgoe family is working to establish a holiday tradition in Orange County theater in the form of the panto. If Laguna Playhouse continues as a presenting house each December, that very well may come to pass.
Last year’s “A Snow White Christmas” and this year’s “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight” differ in story and characters but use the same style.
Originating in England, panto has been seen in the U.S. since 1876. Based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes, American panto incorporates songs, jokes, slapstick, cross-dressing, and loads of local references and audience participation.
It’s all aimed squarely at families, and that includes softening the darker aspects of the story and ensuring that each performance is as family-friendly as it is entertaining.
Director Linda Goodrich and her well-chosen cast do exactly that in a show whose best moments are delivered in slick musical numbers that capitalize on the performers’ considerable vocal skills.
In Kris Lythgoe’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale, The King of Laguna (Barry Pearl) anxiously awaits the day his daughter, Princess Aurora (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), turns 18.
She’s to wed The Prince of Irvine (Conor Guzman) – but, more importantly, she’ll also escape a curse by Wicked Fairy Carabosse (Joely Fisher) that says she’ll prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle, then fall into a deep sleep for 100 years.
After the wedding, The Good Fairy (Vonzell Solomon), and protectors Nanny Tickle (Jeff Sumner) and Silly Billy (Benjamin Schrader), think they’ve saved Aurora – but Carabosse tricks her, and the curse is fulfilled. Only the Prince can undo it – but Carabosse captures and imprisons him.
Zuehlsdorff conveys Aurora’s weariness at being protected and eagerness to be treated as an adult – a sentiment audience kids can relate to. Guzman resembles a young Warren Beatty, but his comedic style, akin to Chevy Chase, involves grinning and showing self-mocking bravado – nearly mock-heroic, yet genuine enough to justify our cheers.
Whether acting or singing – in numbers like the 1967’s rock classic “Happy Together” – Zuehlsdorff and Guzman are well worth rooting for, wisely avoiding portrayals that are either too syrupy or outright campy.
Fisher’s British accent and performance drip with evil as she scorns the heroes and squelches the audience’s boos. Her wicked cackle spices verbal daggers, aimed at us, such as “I will poison your drinks at intermission!” and “What do you think this is – a panto or something?”
Schrader’s comic style suggests part Jim Carrey (demeanor), part Jerry Lewis (“Nutty Professor” voice). His best moments are unscripted – leading the Christmas singalong, or his cute interaction with seven kids, brought up onto the stage, who really do “say the darndest things.”
Sumner’s drag act involves wig, dress and extremely heavy makeup plus, for Nanny’s voice, a heavy-corny Southern drawl – but, in keeping with panto’s traditional use of cross-dressing, his performance isn’t overly campy.
The prevailing style is silly and broad, and so is the humor. Most of the laugh lines go to Fisher, Sumner and Schrader, the latter duo firing off a string of vaudeville-style jokes in Act 2.
The script frequently references Orange County locales, pop culture and social media, and the jokes include “I can’t get married tomorrow – I’m busier than the 405 on a Friday afternoon” and “I have a black belt in Sudoku: Mess with me and your number’s up!”
The cast’s bang-up musical theater skills are consistent top to bottom. Seasoned pros like Fisher and Solomon are pure dynamite, Zuehlsdorff and Guzman are terrific, and the sextets of kids alternating between performances are solid.
The score includes recent hits by Daya, Lady Gaga, American Authors, John Legend, Pharrell Williams and LMFAO and less-current but still potent songs – a mixture of indie folk, electronic dance music, neo-soul, Motown and more.
Spencer Liff’s choreography is beautifully integrated into the story and songs. Musical director and onstage keyboard player Michael Sobie is equally at ease with the show’s rock as with more traditional fare, even adding a rock-style version of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz.”
Creating a wonderful storybook look are the costumes (Florencia Carrizo, Donna Maas and the British costume and set company Albemarle) and sets and painted flats (Ian Wilson), all seemingly inspired by Disney’s 1959 animated film.
Panto has already gained traction at Christmastime in places like Houston, Tex., and Malvern, Penn. Its presence here at home is growing, and if it gets kids off of their digital devices and into the theater, so much the better.
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