By Jordan RiefeLythgoe Family Panto returns to Laguna Playhouse
Lythgoe Family Panto is back for its third year at the Laguna Playhouse, this time with “Aladdin and His Winter Wish.” Panto is a centuries-old English tradition pitting good against evil in the broadest and silliest of terms. The Lythgoes have updated and Americanized the family-friendly holiday favorite, throwing in familiar faces and pop tunes for good measure. (The “Aladdin”cast includes Kira Kosarin of Nickelodeon’s “The Thundermans” and Broadway actors Jason Gotay, Barry Pearl and Josh Adamson.)
“It really is a staple diet for theatergoers in the UK,” says Kris Lythgoe. He wrote the new production, which will mark the directorial debut of Emmy-nominated choreographer Spencer Liff, whose “Spring Awakening” opened on Broadway in 2015. Lythgoe learned of Panto from his mother, Bonnie Lythgoe, and his father, Nigel Lythgoe, the creator/producer of “American Idol” and co-creator/producer of “So You Think You Can Dance.”
These days Nigel dedicates free time to arts programs like the one at Santa Ana’s Willard Intermediate School. “They’ve turned the school around because they’re now using the arts to teach the curriculum, and it’s changed the entire environment in that school,” he says. Father and son spoke about Lythgoe Family Panto tradition, arts education, hidden talent and the latest iteration of “American Idol.”
Coast: I’m sure there’s joy to be found working with family on a production, but it can be a headache too.
Nigel Lythgoe: (speaking to Kris): I am certainly not going to get involved in talking about your mom. You and (wife) Becky are brilliant together at doing these pantos, and certainly your mom’s a great director. Between the three of you, you have brought panto to the U.S. When a lot of British companies have said panto cannot work in the States, you’ve proved it can work. And a great deal of respect from me to my three family members, even if one of them divorced me.
Coast: Why is panto such a great passion of yours?
NL: It’s a beautiful entrance into theater for kids. It allows them and their parents to feel they are a part of a theatrical experience, which is a very important thing at a time when the arts are not being recognized well enough, as far as I’m concerned, by the education system or anything else.
Coast: Do you write original songs?
Kris Lythgoe: It’s pop music, so it’s Snow White singing Lady Gaga. The kids know the stories and the songs, so it really engages them.
Coast: In the past you’ve cast Ariana Grande, Ben Vereen, many big stars.
KL: We had Ariana play Snow White, but Neil Patrick Harris played the magic mirror. We really try and make that crossover so that every generation can get something out of it.
Coast: I imagine with family connections you have a pretty strong casting pool. How does it work?
NL: It works one way: finances. When you’re only putting a show on for four weeks, you’ve got to really make sure your budget is reasonable. When you hear about Katy Perry getting $25 million for judging for a couple of hours on “American Idol,” obviously the budgets are totally different for a 30-week production.
Coast: Since you mention it, and Katy Perry is a judge for its return in March, is the time right for a new version of “Idol”?
NL: It’s a little early, from my point of view, to bring it back. At the same time the audience is there for it. So the audience will love having it back. Certainly the judging panel I think now is very strong, and I can only wish them luck. Certainly with ABC and Disney behind them, they’re going to have some great PR.
Coast: Has the talent level improved over the years?
NL: I have been hugely surprised every single year of going out on the road with either “American Idol” or “So You Think You Can Dance” at how the talent itself has improved. They knew what they were auditioning for, so they were much better prepared. At the same time, the very first year, Kelly Clarkson would probably have won every single year if she had gone on. She was stunning, as was Carrie Underwood and so many of them.
Coast: Do you think we all have some kind of talent buried somewhere inside us?
NL: I think we’ve all got talent in different areas. But I could never sing like that. I’m a dancer, and I wouldn’t be able to dance like these kids are dancing now. I think sometimes many of us do not find what we’re good at, and there’s a certain sadness in that. I think we’re all born the same way. I don’t believe we’re all equal in the same way.
SEE IT: “Aladdin and His Winter Wish,” Dec. 7-31, Laguna Playhouse,
606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. $20-$70. 949.497.2787:: lagunaplayhouse.com