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It might seem that putting together a Christmas panto is no more complicated than whipping up a batch of Grandma's eggnog. You pull out a recipe and, after a bit of messing around in the kitchen, you've got the whole family rolling around on the floor. And truth to tell, Ross Petty has got pretty good over the years at whipping up an intoxicating family brew for the holidays, and making it loo terribly easy. But it's not as easy as it looks. For proof, one need look no further than this year's edition: Ross Petty Productions opened BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: THE SAVAGELY SILLY FAMILY MUSICAL on Thursday at the Elgin Theatre. And it's a bona fide hit, thanks in no small part to an experienced team that includes director Ted Dykstra (on board for his fifth show), choreographer Tracey Flye (panto No. 9, for those counting) and even Petty himself, who has cast himself as the panto's perennial villain, as well as it very seasoned producer.

The cast, too, has some familiar names. While this is Melissa O'Neil's first foray into this strange and delightful theatrical form, her Bella - the Beauty of title - shares the stage with many performers steeped in panto tradition, including Jake Epstein, returning from CINDERELLA to the dual roles of Prince Zack and the Beast. Throw in panto vets Eddie Glen, Jake Simons and Meghan Hoople and you've got a team.

As for the book, this may represent a first effort for co-writers Nicholas Hune-Brown and Lorna Wright, but rest assured, they find their rhythm quickly. They have come up with a script in which the obligatory similarities to any other stage musical are purely intentional, disguised though they may be by pop-culture references, local jokes and a range of pop tunes that promise something for just about every generation.

Hune-Brown and Wright spin out the story of nerdy Prince Zack (Epstein) transformed into a beastly rock star as part of a dastardly plan cooked up by Baron Barnum von Cowell (Petty in full faux frightful flight) to usurp the kingdom. The hapless Zack agrees to it in large part simply to win the affections of the beautiful Bella (O'Neil), who lives in a little cottage on the edge of the woods with her inventive Aunt Plinky (Scott Thompson, doing his best to prove that there is indeed nothing like his dame).

The Baron's plot not only threatens the careers of his other pop creations - the adorable Buskin Beaver (Hoople in an inspired, toothy sendup of Justin Bieber) and Lisa Lennox's Lady Baa Baa - but threatens to turn Zack's sad-sack advisers (Glen and Simons) into his full-time rhythm section as well.

In short, it's everything we've come to expect in a panto - and just the teeniest bit less, for in their eagerness to please, Petty's script writers overlook one of the lessons Petty has taught his audience so well: rough edges on homemade Christmas gifts like this simply add to their charm. So, while Hune-Brown and Wright strike all the obligatory high and low notes with comedy - the commercials are not to be missed, the new mayor gets roasted just like the old one and Thompson crowns it all with a bit of delightful Lese-majesty - it's all a little too polished.

Worse, in a season when childhood stretches all the way into senior-citizenship and beyond (and if you don't believe me, take a good look at this audience), a tad too many of the cultural references are aimed squarely at the under-30 demographic, and some of the musical numbers go on a bit too long. But while this delightful seasonal brew might not be the nog Grannie whipped up, it's still a great glass of christmas cheer that gets you where you want to be at this time of year, surrounded by those you love, all having a good laugh.

Globe and Mail

December 3, 2010 By J. KELLY NESTRUCK From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Written by Lorna Wright and Nicholas Hune-Brown
Directed by Ted Dykstra

Starring Jake Epstein, Melissa O'Neil and Scott Thompson

At the Elgin Theatre in Toronto

Ross Petty's holiday tradition returns for its 15th year with a lively jukebox musical for the whole family Three boos for producer/stage villain Ross Petty, whose Torontonian twist on the British holiday pantomime tradition is now in its 15th year. (In the topsy-turvy world of Petty panto, a boo is equivalent to a cheer.)

Beauty and the Beast is a sturdy example of his brand of family show where fairy tales are fractured, then the cracks are filled in with pop songs and minor Canadian celebrities.

As rewritten by Lorna Wright and Nicholas Hune-Brown, this year's story is almost completely snapped off from its original plot (not to mention that of the popular 1991 Disney animated film).

In this version, Prince Zak (Degrassi's Jake Epstein) is a timid wannabe rock star who makes a Faustian pact with the Baron Barnum von Cowell (Petty); the Baron will use his magical iScroll to give Zak the confidence to sing in front of crowds and ask the beautiful peasant Bella (Melissa O'Neil) out on a date, but as a side effect he'll be transformed into The Beast.

Von Cowell's evil app is actually part of a dastardly plan to seize the crown. He also has a side get-rich-quick scheme that angers the animal-loving Bella, one involving using another app to transform animals into enslaved pop stars. His two biggest successes to date are Buskin' Beaver, played by a powerful, pint-sized Meghan Hoople complete with Justin Bieber swish, buckteeth and a beaver tail, and Lady Baa Baa (Lisa Lennox), who was Bella's beloved pet lamb before she was turned into an attention-seeking, meat-dress-wearing singer.

Among those enlisted to stop Baron von Cowell are Jake Simons's blustery Antonio and The Kids in the Hall's Scott Thompson, donning a dress to play Bella's inventor maiden aunt. Performing dialogue is clearly not the comedian's forte and his line readings are frequently stilted. But when he pulls out his impersonation of the Queen or is unleashed to improvise with a group of cowering children invited up on the stage, he is downright hilarious.

According to a focus group of 12-year olds I brought with me to Beauty and the Beast - Stefan and Gideon - this year's show deserves three and a half stars. Both thought that the ideal age range for the show was 10 to 13, but I'd say you could move the lower age limit down a couple of years. Kids much younger than that will find the overly complicated story less accessible and may find the pacing too pokey. Indeed, the glaring omission from this Petty production is a warm, friendly fairy narrator to engage the younger ones from the start.

Instead, Beauty and the Beast kicks off with a cold show-within-a-show framing device that's mostly there to get a poke or two in at Twilight and other vampire obsessions. (Habits are hard to break for Hune-Brown, who got this gig based on a couple of Fringe meta-musicals he wrote, notably The Lord of the Rings: The Musical: The Musical.)

While this jukebox musical takes much too long to get going, once Prince Zak has been transformed, Ted Dykstra's production is fairly smooth, silly sailing with some of the most enjoyable, tuneful musical performances of recent editions. The talented and charismatic Epstein, who has been touring for the last year in Spring Awakening, and O'Neil, a former Canadian Idol with natural stage presence, have strong chemistry. The musical playlist is much more up to date this time around with snappy choreography from Tracey Flye.



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