Laguna Playhouse returns to holiday panto with 'Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight'

The Laguna Playhouse returns with its second annual holiday pantomime production “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight,” with a very modern twist of the classic Grimm tale and a cast packed with Broadway, film and television stars.

Presented by Lythgoe Family Panto, a company run by the son and daughter-in-law of TV producer Nigel Lythgoe (“American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance”) the play starts previews today with regular performances beginning Friday for a two-week run.

The family-fun musical will be presented in the style of a traditional British pantomime, or panto, featuring a live band, pop music, audience interaction and even local references to familiar places – the King of Laguna and Prince of Irvine are characters, for example.

Orange County resident and star of the feature films “Dolphin Tale” and “Dolphin Tale 2” Cozi Zuehlsdorff will lead the cast as the fairytale princess Aurora. Producer Becky Lythgoe says Zuehlsdorff has brought a new take on the princess.

“Cozi is sensational with a powerful voice and fun personality that the audience will instantly relate to and have a good time with,” Lythgoe said.

Other cast members include Broadway and film actors Barry Pearl (“Grease,” “The Producers”), Joely Fisher (“Cabaret,” “Ellen”), Benjamin Schrader (“The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q”), Jeff Sumner (“Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular”) and Vonzell Solomon (second runner-up of season four “American Idol”).

Lythgoe Family Panto is hoping Orange County audiences are catching on to the panto format, especially after the company presented “A Snow White Christmas” at the Laguna Playhouse last year, so that the company can continue to annually present its shows in the theater.

“Since the inception in 2010, we’ve seen a massive growth. We used to have to constantly explain what a panto is and who we are, and now going into our second year in Laguna, fifth year in Pasadena, and first year in San Diego, we have less of a resistance,” Lythgoe said. “We are excited because we have already doubled our audiences in Laguna because of people hearing of it last year.”

For those unfamiliar with the theatrical form, which dates to the 1700s, the plays are a mixture of classic fairy tale stories with modern songs and audience participation. The productions are commonly presented around Christmas and New Year’s in playhouses and large theaters throughout the United Kingdom.

“Sleeping Beauty” was presented at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2014, but Lythgoe said the Laguna audience will experience it in a very different way.

“There are so many local references to things that only the Orange County people will know, so they are going to laugh and feel like they are at home,” she said. “Also, the music is amazing and will get the audience up on their feet almost immediately.”

Pop songs will include Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory,” LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” John Legend’s “All of Me” and Daya’s “Sit Still, Look Pretty.” The audience is encouraged to stand up and dance, as well as interact with the actors, particularly the character “Silly Billy,” played by Schrader, who talks directly to viewers throughout the play.

The pastel-colored set displays a wintry castle that Lythgoe said gives a very holiday feel, especially when the show ends with fake snowflakes covering the stage and audience. She added the play has many other surprises throughout, and with the unpredictable audience interaction, every show is different.

“It’s affordable theater for multi-generations,” she said. “That really was the impetus and drive for us to create what is really an American panto, because we have taken the honored British tradition and formed it to meet the needs of our American audiences. By doing that, we are hoping to ultimately create a new tradition for families across the country to enjoy together at the holiday time.”