Is there such a thing as a pandemic panto?
White Rock Players Club is laying odds there is. And, barring further lockdowns, the club is betting a streamlined COVID-era version will mean its proud 66-year tradition, the city’s annual Christmas pantomime, will continue this year.
The latest edition, Once Upon A Panto: The Legend of Shenanigans, is scheduled for a Dec. 1 to Dec. 20 run at the White Rock Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd. – but, as director, author and star Dann Wilhelm points out, it can’t be exactly business as usual.
This year’s show will be a staged reading – and singing – of the script, Wilhelm said. The smaller-than-usual cast will be distanced and, though costumed, will likely be masked.
“We’re going to try to go with clear plastic masks so that we can see everyone’s faces,” he said.
And, naturally, the audience members – no more than 50 for each show provided the current two-week restrictions are lifted – must be masked, too, while all other provincial health guidelines will be followed.
While restrictions mean traditional dancing and staging are essentially out the window, Wilhelm said choreographer Danica Domay will still give the distanced characters dance moves to match a full score of favourite 1980s songs, which will be played by veteran panto musical director Tim Tucker.
“We’re very lucky to have Danica, who I worked with on Mamma Mia for Fraser Valley Stage in February, and Tim, who I know from many shows we did with the Fraser Valley Gilbert and Sullivan Society,” Wilhelm said.
Tucker, a FVGSS stalwart, was available this year, since that group has chosen not to stage a panto – opting instead to create a six-episode podcast The Fairy-Tale Mysteries.
Although Once Upon A Panto may be something of an untried beast, there’s no doubt that there is such an animal as Shenanigans, the Pantomime Giraffe.
For more than 20 years the long-necked, autohorn-toting ruminant – complete with its own jaunty musical theme – has been White Rock’s cheerfully off-the-wall take on the traditional British pantomime animal (usually a horse or a cow), making an appearance at least once every show.
And Wilhelm – whose humorous nods to the follies and foibles of contemporary pop culture enlivened the script and direction of Robin Hood and the Skytrain of Doom (he also helmed last year’s Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, by Chase Thomson) – has decided it is time that Shenanigan’s ‘origin story’ was told.
He acknowledges he’s also appropriated the central concept of TV’s Once Upon A Time, in which fairy tale characters co-exist in a mythical community named ‘Storybrook.’
In Once Upon A Panto, the community is the village of Fairytrail in the kingdom of Pantopia, c. 1985 – which gives an opportunity to glimpse early versions of characters from many past pantomimes, including such perennials as Cinderella and Snow White, and Wilhelm’s own Robin Hood.
All are played by a hand-picked cast of 12 versatile comedic players performing multiple roles – including a welcome return of some familiar faces from the latter two shows.
“I had the idea a couple of years ago…I finished writing it earlier this year before this COVID ‘stuff’ hit the fan,” Wilhelm said.
“The club decided this was the script we were going to do this year. But it was all up in the air until a couple of months ago when I was approached and asked what I thought of doing a readers-theatre version of the pantomime. I said I’d have to see if I could make that work, because I would have to do some rewrites…less than a month ago I got the word – yes, go ahead, we’re doing it.
“Then I started making calls – just about everyone I approached was on board, although a couple of people bowed out because the scheduling wouldn’t work. Only one person told me, ‘I’m not comfortable doing this yet’ – which was fine, because I’m not about to force anyone to do something they’re not ready to do.”
In Wilhelm’s synopsis, the show tells the story of “young Henry (Paige Thomsen), the town prankster and adopted daughter of the evil Queen Regina,” (played by Sam Silver, who appeared in Robin Hood and Fraser Valley Stage’s Mamma Mia).
When the residents of Fairytrail struggle to pay their annual taxes to the villainous queen, Wilhelm said, “she threatens them with a magic spell that would see the entire town turned into animals.”
“In order to save the village, Henry and her friends Rumpelstiltskin (principal boy Stefani Delisimunovic), Snow White (also Delisimunovic), Peter Pan (Christopher Hall, the genie from Aladdin), Pinocchio (Beth Cantor), Emma Goose (principal girl Fiorella Artoni) and Mother Goose (Wilhelm)… along with many other famous fairy tale characters, embark on an adventure that will change their lives forever.”
Also enlisted for the fun are Adrian Shaffer, returning as the title character from Aladdin, as well as taking on the role of bumbling aristocrat Lord Coe from Robin Hood; Jake Hildebrand, reprising evil Abanazar from Aladdin; Dianna Harvey as Little Red Riding Hood’s granny and Kaden Chad as the Narrator, among other roles.
Wilhelm said that while presenting the pantomime this way is far from ideal, he believes that the club’s recent pandemic-era shows, The Humans and Matt & Ben, have shown that“there is a hunger for theatre among our audience.”
“It’s not just the actors,” he said. “Although they’re champing at the bit – especially the ones I’ve lined up. We’re already having lots of fun…I almost lost my voice a couple of times from laughing so hard at what they’ve been coming up with.”
Wilhelm acknowledges he’s also taking a leaf from the book of one of his theatre mentors, the late Scott Wheeler – former Players Club president and popular White Rock panto dame – by not only scripting and directing the show, but also reviving one of Wheeler’s signature over-the-top roles – the outrageous and unapologetically glamorized Mother Goose.
“Scott has definitely been a bit of an influence in that regard,” Wilhelm laughed.
“(Club past president) Fred Partridge told me he already feels as though his PTSD has returned.”
For more information on shows and ordering tickets, visit whiterockplayers.ca, call 604-536-7535 or email firstname.lastname@example.org