Toronto Star

Why the world needs PANTOS

Producers Petty and Torr say the comic theatrical tradition is a family-friendly antidote to angst

- KAREN FRICKER THEATRE CRITIC

Now more than ever, the world needs a good dose of panto.

That’s the message from the producers of two Toronto holiday pantomimes: Ross Petty’s The

Wizard of Oz at the Elgin Theatre and Torrent Production­s’ Cinderella at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch on Coxwell Ave.

Petty works year-round to produce his family musicals in the English pantomime tradition, which have been playing at the Elgin for 23 years (and for six years before that at the Royal Alexandra Theatre).

Usually, he gives an upbeat address to his company on the first day of rehearsals. It was different this year, in response to the “oppressive negativity that’s coming out of the U.S.,” says Petty. “It’s invasive. The oppression doesn’t stop at the border; it comes into this country, it goes into all countries in the world.”

There’s a relevant metaphor in the story his company of young artists is telling, Petty thinks. “Trump and his enablers would learn a lot from having the courage of the Lion, the heart of the Tin Man and the brains of the Scarecrow … If they had a modicum of what those wonderful characters have, we would not be in such dire straits.”

While this metaphor won’t be played out literally onstage, Petty says to expect a few mentions of “Trump and (Doug) Ford” and implied questions about how “these people get into power.”

Pantomime is always a combinatio­n of predictabl­e and unpredicta­ble: the stories are familiar, but part of the challenge for the creators — and fun for audiences — is interpreti­ng them in new ways.

When I ask Petty how to get the balance right, he turns the question on its head: “My tradition is innovation! People come to my shows because they know they’re not going to see the Disney version of Snow White and Cinderella. Innovation is our major talking point and why people come to see our shows.”

This production’s Dorothy is Ottawa native Camille Eanga-Selenge, who’s been in both the Broadway and Australian companies of The

Book of Mormon but will not be well known to Toronto audiences. “You’ve been all around the world,” Petty reports he said to her. “Now it’s time to spend some time in your own country.”

Petty also singles out veteran performer Eddie Glen, “16 years later still pumping out the old jokes.”

What Petty loves best are the moments each year when audiences tell him that their parents used to bring them to his shows and now they’re bringing their own children. “That to me is what makes it all worthwhile,” he says, “to have that kind of a legacy, so that the family tradition continues from generation to generation.”

Family memories are what inspired Torrent Production­s’ Rob Torr to start producing pantos three years ago in the east end. While he was growing up in Ottawa, his English parents and grandparen­ts took him to see a panto starring the British actor Lionel Blair.

“I’ll never forget it,” Torr says, “my grandfathe­r laughing so hard he was in tears … Mom and dad killing themselves too. It was a larger-than-life experience.”

They met Blair after the show and Torr says he still remembers the smell of greasepain­t: “It was intoxicati­ng. I was hooked.”

Torr is a Toronto-based actor; he first had the idea to produce a panto about 10 years ago and, looking for encouragem­ent, wrote to Sir Ian McKellen, who was at that point playing the Dame in a panto in London, England. To Torr’s delight, McKellen wrote back: “He thinks panto’s why the theatre scene is so strong in the U.K.: everyone goes to panto when they are a kid,” Torr says.

Torr runs Torrent with his wife Stephanie Graham, a Dora Award-winning choreograp­her. It’s important to them to create opportunit­ies for Toronto performers to stay home over the holidays and work, “so that we can celebrate with our neighbourh­oods,” Torr says.

The larger goal is “a multi-generation­al community laugh,” he says. “In my experience we don’t have that as much anymore. There is no lesson being taught; I just want people to have fun together and it introduces audiences to live theatre.”

When asked to compare his approach to Petty’s, Torr says his shows are “nowhere near as grand.” While, as with Petty’s shows, there are Toronto-specif- ic references, Torrent’s are “very local, almost very small town … I promote our local merchants, the shops around the corner in the east end.”

The Legion on Coxwell Ave. is “the perfect place for our panto,” Torr says. “We sing O Canada before every show. I’m honoured we can do it there every year.”

So far, Torrent’s shows fall into the labour of love category — Torr and Graham have yet to break even — but audiences been growing steadily ever year.

As with Petty, Torr’s measure of success for his shows is their multi-generation­al appeal: “One of my neighbours came up to me after the first year in tears. I said, ‘Why? It’s meant to be fun- ny!’ She said, ‘My daughter, who’s really stoic, is busting a gut on one side of me and my mom on the other side is doing the same thing. I don’t think I’ve ever experience­d this before.’”

The Wizard of Oz: A Toto-ly Twistered Family Musical plays at the Elgin Theatre through Jan. 5. See rosspetty.com or call 1-855-599-9090. Cinderella plays at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 1/42, 243 Coxwell Ave., Dec. 21 to 30. See torrentpro­ductions.com for informatio­n.

 ?? RACHEAL MCCAIG ?? Michael De Rose as Sugarbum the Good Witch, Camille Eanga-Selenge as Dorothy and Matt Nethersole as Scarecrow in Ross Petty’s The Wizard of Oz pantomime.
RACHEAL MCCAIG Michael De Rose as Sugarbum the Good Witch, Camille Eanga-Selenge as Dorothy and Matt Nethersole as Scarecrow in Ross Petty’s The Wizard of Oz pantomime.
 ?? ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE TORONTO STAR ?? Rob Torr, bottom right, with the cast of Cinderella: A Merry Magical Pantomime. His British parents and grandparen­ts introduced him to the delights of pantos.
ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE TORONTO STAR Rob Torr, bottom right, with the cast of Cinderella: A Merry Magical Pantomime. His British parents and grandparen­ts introduced him to the delights of pantos.
 ?? ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE TORONTO STAR ?? Before producing his first panto, Rob Torr wrote to Sir Ian McKellen, who was playing in a panto in London, England. To Torr’s delight, McKellen wrote back.
ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE TORONTO STAR Before producing his first panto, Rob Torr wrote to Sir Ian McKellen, who was playing in a panto in London, England. To Torr’s delight, McKellen wrote back.

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