Surrey-based Royal Canadian Theatre Company (RCTC) is back with a holiday-month pantomime brought to the stage by a new creative team that worked through the pandemic to get the job done.
The slightly twisted “Alice in Wonderland” script is written by Crystal Weltzin, who also plays the Queen of Hearts in the show, directed by Kerri Norris.
The two inherited those roles from Ellie King, the theatre company’s longtime managing artistic director.
“This is the first year since I founded RCTC without me writing and directing,” King noted. “I’ve handed on the baton to the next generation of panto queens!”
Of course, the dynamic but retirement-minded King is still involved (in set design and writing music with husband Geoff King) for the run of shows at Surrey Arts Centre from Dec. 16-26, and Massey Theatre in New Westminster, Jan. 1-2.
“Alice” continues the company’s tradition of family-friendly, silly, musical panto shows, which have involved Weltzin over the past decade-plus, in one role or another.
She played the panto’s title character back in 2010, as a member of Royal Canadian’s youth mentorship program, and has returned as playwright and also an actor in an “evil” role.
“She’s an amazing young woman, and a brilliant actor,” King said of Weltzin, who grew up in Surrey and continues to live in the city. “This is her first panto script, and she has done a brilliant job.”
A lifeguard by day, Weltzin wrote this “Alice” script in 2020.
“Back in January last year, we were already talking about doing ‘Alice’ again, as a 10th-anniversary show of the one we did in 2010, when I played Alice,” she explained. “Ellie was going to write it, but she got really busy and past the deadline, so Kerri, our director, kind of turned to me and said, ‘OK, you’re writing it.’ I was like, ‘OK!’”
Lewis Carroll’s story, about a girl who follows a rabbit into a strange land, is reworked by Weltzin into what she considers her first full-length show, following shorter scripts she’s written.
“A panto is nice and easy because there are so many things that I could kind of fall back on that were already tropes, stock characters I could work with,” she explained.
“The version we did in 2010, Alice was an older teen girl, but for this we wanted Alice to be a child, not the princess falling in love with the prince,” Weltzin continued. “We really wanted Alice to have that get-lost adventure, a journey, and have that spunk and sass and find her way, and to use the friendships she makes along the way to help her find her way back home.”
Weltzin said she grew up going to White Rock Players pantos every December.
“One of the things I always loved was when the boy and girl broke into song, they had this moment where it looked like they were going to kiss but instead they break into song, so I stole a little bit of that. It’s one of my favourite bits,” she explained.
“I would say that the little bit of me that I put into this is, I really worked on the boy-girl relationship to make them sickeningly sweet but also likeable. Especially because I know the bad guys are so easy to relate to and have fun with, this year I made sure to have the good guys have that big spotlight, and they have a very upbeat song this year versus their normal ballads. It’s all the jokes and the spotlight for the good guys this year.”
On stage, Weltzin’s Queen of Hearts character was played 11 years ago by Norris, this year’s panto director. That same year, in 2010, Weltzin starred as Alice in a King-directed version of the story.
Norris’ husband is Stephen Elcheshen, the dame this time around. Their daughter Cayleigh is Alice, and another daughter, Aeron, is the Dormouse.
“Kerri is normally the bad guy, and I’m slowly going into that role,” Weltzin noted. “There’s a bunch of short jokes that I wrote in, because I hate myself apparently, and everyone makes fun of my height anyway, so now I have control of the short jokes,” she added with a laugh.
“Alice” will be staged eight times at Surrey Arts Centre, including a “relaxed” performance on Dec. 23 “for people of all ages with intellectual or other disabilities.” For ticket info and other shows details, call 604-501-5566 or visit tickets.surrey.ca.
The panto players rehearsed at Royal Canadian’s Whalley studio over the past two months, with pandemic protocols in place.
“We’ve all been completely masked during rehearsals,” Weltzin said, “and they’ve been closed rehearsals – nobody coming in, it’s just us.
“Normally for the panto, we start our rehearsals in September but this year we got going in October, a month later, and that’s because of that COVID safety plan and wanting to reduce the amount of time we’re together in the same space,” she added. “But we actually feel ahead more than usual, and I think we’re not going to be as panicked as we typically are.”
In addition to her other roles, Weltzin is “slowly learning the ropes” of production management from King.
”It’s been really interesting combining what resources I have with the resources she has built,” Weltzin said. “She’s such a strong leader and wears so many hats, it’s been an interesting juggle and challenge.”
Looking ahead, Royal Canadian is planning an “Eat Your Heart Out” dinner theatre show to be staged at Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel from Jan. 27-29. Auditions will be held Dec. 14-15 at the company’s Whalley studio, by appointment. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for info, or visit rctheatreco.com.