Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
This Year’s Panto: “Cinderella…” Proves Underwhelming
For the past five years, the Pasadena Playhouse has chosen not to produce the standard fare, opting instead to invite in the Lythgoe Family Panto as a holiday children’s treat. Always starring a big name or two, the plays are founded on the old British pantos, which featured a well-known story and included in its cast at least one cross-dressed character. The Lythgoe versions have featured Peter Pan, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin, and now Cinderella in their newest, “A Cinderella Christmas”.
These shows, written by Kris Lythgoe and directed by Bonnie Lythgoe, are listed as musicals, though the music is usually pop hits and other contemporary favorites maneuvered into a more classic story. They are interactive, with audience members asked to boo, clap and shout out phrases as the play unwinds, and they have an intentionally over-the-top silliness which can power through any shaky script bits and keep the audience engaged.
However, with their Cinderella story, they may have hit a few snags. For one thing, the show is very talky by comparison with their usual, and many of the jokes are aimed at adults rather than the kids who fill the room. Not that keeping adults amused is a bad thing, but the trick is to pull what Warner Brothers cartoons were famous for: making the kids laugh and the adults laugh at the same time, even if for different reasons. This time, that really doesn’t happen much.
The second is one bit of casting. There are always a few famous leads, and this production is no exception. Morgan Fairchild plays the baroness who is Cinderella’s stepmother, and at this she does a rather underplayed but suitable job. However, Disney Channel’s Lauren Taylor has adopted that back-of-the-throat, sliding singing style which is great for modern pop music, but does not carry well onstage. As a result, unless you are familiar with the song she’s singing, like Katy Perry’s “Rise”, you can’t understand the lyrics. The choice of music for the character may also be at fault for the underwhelming nature of her singing performance as well, as most of her songs are low and slow and make the necessarily lively pacing of the show drag to a virtual halt – something for which she cannot be blamed.
On the other hand, Alex Newell, cross-dressed as the Fairy Godperson, sings up a storm and pretty much stops the show near the end with his version of One Moment in Time. Likewise, Kenton Duty’s Prince Charming proves most likable, with solid timing and stage presence and charming musical-theater voice. Ben Giroux and Josh Adamson, take up yet more cross-dressed parts, having a delightful time as the completely atrocious step-sisters. Oh, those mind-boggling costumes!
Another standout is Davi Santos as the prince’s audacious and engaging personal servant. Also fine is Matthew Patrick Davis, who turns Cinderella’s best friend, Buttons, into the show’s single most attractive character, provides most of the narration and direct communication with the audience, and even handles those not-quite-successful joke lines like a pro. As is sometimes true of such a show, there would be no “there” there without that performance.
A nod must also be made toward the dancers, both the six adults who frame the piece and the bevy of children (two groups alternate performances) who show style and emotional engagement with the material from start to finish. Most of the choreography, by Spencer Liff, seems more suited to providing back-up to a pop star than to a Prince holding a ball, etc., but it is lively and very well performed.
The person in charge of the music, Michael Orland, does a lot with a small (and slightly over-amplified) band, and the combination of set designer Ian Wilson and lighting designer Chris Wilcox give this extremely episodic storyline a continuity.
All of which is means that “A Cinderella Christmas” can be fun (though its correlation with Christmas is tenuous at best). It just doesn’t quite hold up, either in script or in production, to some of the other Lythgoe products of the past. Still, it is silly, the kids get to shout at the stage on cue and, if one purchases a “gold ticket”, even come up on stage at the end. There is even a chance to wave the occasional magic wand or sword to make things happen. Particularly for young children, this may be a better bet than those Christmas shows which rely more thoroughly on a story simply to be watched.
What: “A Cinderella Christmas” When: through January 8, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 12 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sundays, with special matinees at 3 p.m. December 23, 26, 28 and 30, and January 5. No shows December 25 or January 1. Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25-$125 (no charge for children under 2, if they sit on a lap) Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org