Stu News Laguna: A Cinderella story for the modern age

A Cinderella story for the modern age – Now through December 29 at the Laguna Playhouse


This story is a part of our Arts section. Visit for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.

Cinderella stories are older than you might think. The rags-to-riches romance dates back as early as 7 BC. Before pumpkins and ball gowns, a Greek storyteller, Strabo, recorded a tale about a young courtesan, Rhodopsin, who attracted the attention of the King of Egypt when an eagle flew off with her sandal and dropped it in his lap. Intrigued by its shape, the King set out in search of its owner.

The Chinese have their own Cinderella story documented in 860 CE. So do the Malay-Indonesians, the Vietnamese and other ethnic groups.

But the first evidence of it in writing occurred in Italy in 1634 by Giamatti’s Basile, who wrote several other familiar fairytales. In France, Charles Perrault penned the most recognizable Cinderella story in 1697, translated into English and used by Walt Disney in 1950 to create the movie. And, of course, the Brothers Grimm wrote the tale into their 1812 book, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, published in Germany.

This month, the childhood classic is getting another modern remake at the Laguna Playhouse. A Cinderella Christmas, starring Joly Fisher as the Baroness, continues its run through Friday, Dec. 29. This punto-style, family-friendly production is a perfect way to introduce young children to live theater, as the audience is encouraged to interact with the actors with shouts, cheers, jeers and applause.

I chatted with Veronica Dunne (who plays Cinderella), and producer Becky Lythgoe, part of the Lythgoe family who has been staging British-born puntos at the Laguna Playhouse for the past eight seasons. They shared their behind-the-scenes insights into the show, what audiences might expect from this modernized retelling of a timeless classic and the music that will have folks of every age singing in the aisles.

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Photos by Jason Needled

Veronica Dunne and Patrick Ortiz (center) with the company of the Laguna Playhouse & Lythgoe Family Productions Holiday Punto “A Cinderella Christmas,” directed by Bonnie Lythgoe and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse through December 29

The Lythgoe family mission: Affordable, accessible, artful fun for children of all ages

Best known for producing television shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, the Lythgoe family’s passion is bringing affordable live theater to young audiences. The Lythgoes began staging fairytale classics like Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Sleeping Beauty, The Winter of Oz and several others at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2010. They offered those same stories to Laguna beginning in 2015.

“They wanted to bring young, new audiences into the theater at affordable prices,” said producer Becky Lythgoe, wife of writer Kris Lythgoe and daughter-in-law of director Bonnie Lythgoe. “Kids, parents and grandparents can all be together and enjoy a show. Panto lends itself to that because it’s fairytales they all know with songs they all love.”

Becky helped bridge the cultural gap between the ribald British-born panto and the slightly sanitized Americanized version. “We needed to amalgamate it to our American audiences,” she said. “You can get away with super bawdy things in England. But Americans don’t pull their kids over to the pub and have that kind of innuendo.”

Kris pens each script anew to keep pace with the times and ensure the music is current. Though Becky said she and Bonnie sometimes had to “rein him in,” audiences of every age can expect a good time. “He’s so funny,” Becky said. “He’s taken particular joy in the stepsisters, who are played by men. He’s really done an outstanding job with their humor.”

The stepsisters (played by Jeff Sumner and Mark Gagliardi) take the stage with Megan Trainor’s Made You Look and make a later appearance accompanied by Aqua’s Barbie Girl. “Their entrance is absolutely hilarious,” Becky said. “Kris really takes pleasure in writing comedy.”

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(L-R) Mark Gagliardi, Joely Fisher and Jeff Sumner bring the humor to this year’s panto, “A Cinderella Christmas”

The matinee performance on Thursday, Dec. 7, was devoted to students from Title One schools (students most in need of financial assistance). “The Laguna Playhouse is so aligned with our ethos of bringing young, new audiences to the theater,” Becky said. “They paid to have a [full house] of Title One students bused in. The magic of that performance is unmatched. We had three kids say, ‘That was the best movie I ever saw!’ They knew they were live actors, but most of them had never been to a theater before. Then they get to scream and shout at the people on stage. It’s really fun for them.”

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In addition to producing the panto, Becky will perform select shows as the Baroness (normally played by Joely Fisher).

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Joely Fisher, daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Connie Stevens, stars as the Baroness in “A Cinderella Christmas”

A full-circle Cinderella moment

A Cinderella Christmas is experiencing a full-circle moment this season. First staged at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2010, this year’s revival features the same Cinderella – Veronica Dunne. Back then, at age 15 and 13 years younger than her competition, Dunne answered a casting call at a Westfield shopping mall. Today she’s 28 and brings all her added experience, wisdom, humor, singing and dancing chops to the stage.

Dunne is once again joined by the same Fairy Godmother, played by Jennifer Leigh Warren. She also plays alongside Fisher, who directed Dunne in a few episodes of Disney’s KC Undercover (Dunne’s longest running role).

During those intervening years, in addition to her work with Disney, Dunne performed on Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago. “I have more training and a better understanding of myself as an actor and as a human being,” Dunne said. “And, because I’m older, my sense of humor is different. I’m goofier. I always enjoy making people laugh, so I’m trying to implement more of that this time. It’s a different performance than when I was a kid.”

Turns out, Cinderella – at least the way Kris Lythgoe chose to write her this year – grew up a little too.

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Veronica Dunne and Patrick Ortiz play Cinderella and her Prince in this modern retelling of a classic tale

An old tale with a feminist twist

The world looks nothing like it did when that young Egyptian courtesan first entered the public domain in 7BC. It bears little resemblance to Grimm’s 1812 culture. It even feels different from Lythgoe’s 2010 portrayal, when Cinderella still felt fairly traditional.

Today’s Cinderella isn’t a hard-core feminist marching in the streets. But she’s a woman who wants more than a man. She may delight in the company of a prince, but she doesn’t need it. Romance is always magical, but it’s neither the goal nor the point for her. It’s simply “the cherry on top,” as Dunne puts it.

“One of my lines sums it up perfectly,” Dunne said. “My friend Buttons says, ‘Maybe we weren’t meant to meet the prince and go to the ball.’ And I say, ‘It was never about meeting the prince. It was about seeing what was beyond these four walls.’”

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Ben Giroux (Buttons) and Veronica Dunne spin a new take on an old romance tale

This Cinderella story focuses more on Cinderella’s own journey, discovering who she is and where she belongs. She just happens to fall in love along the way. “It’s a lovely little twist,” Dunne said.

She also gets the chance to sing some incredible modern-day songs. Along with Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five,” Dunne belts out lyrics by Lorde, Billie Eilish, the K-pop band Fifty Fifty and others.

“Every time [the Lythgoes] do a panto, they choose popular music so both kids and adults see a [familiar] fairy tale they love, and then hear songs they’re used to hearing on the radio,” Dunne said.

But, for Dunne, the best part of panto is the utter uncertainty of what will happen on any given night. She recounted one of her favorite moments from 2010. She’d just begun her romantic duet with the prince when the two were joined on stage by a 5-year-old girl wearing a princess dress. “Anyone who’s done panto knows you just go with it,” Dunne said. “Pantos require a ‘Yes, and ….’ attitude. We say ‘yes’ to everything and make it work.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Okay, I guess we’re doing a trio with a 5-year-old.’  After [the song finished], I said, ‘Now I must get her to her mother!’”

Every show will vary because the audience becomes an important character in the play, Dunne said. A subdued audience will make for a different experience than a raucous one.

“That’s the beauty of panto,” Dunne said. “It’s always fresh and always different because you’re adding a variable that’s destined to change every time. That keeps us on our toes as actors.”

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(L-R) Front Row: Austyn Myers, Patrick Ortiz, Jennifer Leigh Warren and Joely Fisher star with the company of the Laguna Playhouse in this year’s annual panto, “A Cinderella Christmas”

Performances will be Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. There will no performances on Thursday, Dec. 28 or Friday, Dec. 29 at 7 p.m.

There will be added performances on Thursday, Dec. 21 at 3 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 22 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 23 at 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Dec. 27 at 3 and 7 p.m.; Thursday, Dec. 28 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and Friday, Dec. 29 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Tickets range from $36-$71 for adult tickets; $20-$50 (for children 2-14). There is a $50 “Golden Ticket” add-on available for children ages 4-12 that includes a special onstage sing-along experience during the performance and a gift bag with special surprises! Tickets can be purchased online (and full biographies accessed) at, or by calling 949.497.ARTS (2787). Group discounts are available by calling 949.497.2787, ext. 229. Prices are subject to change.

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This story is a part of our Arts section. Visit for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.