For many Connecticut theatre buffs, the Christmas season only starts when The Town Players of New Canaan present their traditional English pantomime. It is the only theatre company in the area that has made it an annual holiday tradition.
English pantos are, of course, not to be confused with the kind that painted faced pantomime artists perform in the street. Au contraire, they can be on the noisy side, with audiences cheering and singing along and even hissing and booing as actors take well-known children's stories such as Mother Goose, Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood, and turn them into fun for all ages with slapstick, inside jokes, risqué double entendres (that go over the heads of children), references to pop cultures and well-known tunes to which new lyrics are set. Add to that the tradition of gender role reversals What? You thought Harvey Feinstein originated that with Hairspray? Nope. In England, the Christmas pantomime attracts actors who are associated with serious stage drama and actors from television abroad. Sir Ian McKellan played the widow Twankey in Aladdin. Stars from the Australian soap opera, Neighbors and Henry Winkler (aka "The Fonz") played Captain Cook in Peter Pan have also appeared on the London stage, which has "massive productions," notes PatRick Kelly, who has made it a regular holiday event in New Canaan since 2005.
The Town Players of New Canaan is the only area theatre group that does a pantomime each year. It can only boast local talent and a standard community theatre stage with limited space for height and wings, but the company's panto production is hardly a duplicate of what has been done elsewhere. Some actors are not available for the theatre company's other productions and only appear in the panto. Others steer clear of it because they are simply not comfortable with some of its requirements, such as having good improv skills. Also, Kelly says, there is a fine line between actors who can improvise to get the audience engaged and those who are content to running away with shtick.
There are additional challenges for the director. Pantos often use some contemporary songs, "but they are not full-blown musicals," says Kelly. Sometimes they will use a song that was made famous by a pop singer such as Christina Aguilera. As of this writing, the cast had its first reading, but Kelly is still considering what songs to include. They can be from standard musicals, old pop groups or even Lady Gaga.
This year's panto at New Canaan will be Little Red Riding Hood, continuing on December 14 at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and today, December 8, as well as 9, 15 and 16 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.00 for all.The price of admission for children at today's December 8 matinee is one unwrapped toy that will be donated to Toys for Tots. Call 203-966-7371 or visit www.tpnc.org.