I woke up on November 27th 2014 at the age of 25. Now, as I sit drinking a Stella at a jazz bar in Kensington Market (Shafton Thomas Group, Thursday Nights at Poetry– you should go!) , I’m back somewhere near where I started. But for a few hours there in the middle- between 1 and 10pm- I got to be 8 years old again. And it was awesome.
I began my day at the magical palace of agelessness that is Young People’s Theatre. On opening day, YPT gives you the option of attending the 1pm or the 7pm show. I always choose 1pm because that’s field trip time and you’ll never see a happier group of human beings than elementary school kids on field trip day. Sure, they fidget through the whole show and occasionally clap at weird times but that’s what theatre for young audiences is about- it’s like audience training so the kid who once stood on her chair at the ballet to tell the rat king to stop picking on the Nutcracker can learn basic decorum and one day be able to sit politely through Long Day’s Journey Into Night. YPT and, even more intensely, Ross Petty’s yearly pantomime are where kids can fidget and clap at weird times and boo at the villain and generally unleash their inner kid without missing out on the best thing in life that usually involves sitting still and shutting up.
In case you’ve somehow missed the giant peach currently inflated on top of YPT’s Front St. headquarters, their current production is Pasek & Paul’s new musical adaptation of James & the Giant Peach. Like Matilda before it, James is technically an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book but it comes in the shadow of a famous American movie version (which my mother wouldn’t let us watch because it was about vermin and that’s the kind of lady that she is). Also like Matilda, the musical version is silly and largely forgettable but for a few genuinely moving and/or funny songs. It takes too long to get to the actual inside-a-giant-peach part of the story but, once there, the ensemble really shines (Stewart Adam McKensy, in particular, is enchanting as the gentlemanly grasshopper). As James, Alessandro Costantini has a Cory Matthews-esque charm, though I grew tired pretty quickly of gimmicky evil aunts Spiker and Sponge. For me, the star was Robin Fisher’s costumes- vibrant and full of character to match the rosiness of the show. But, most importantly (because YPT caters mostly to school groups with less of a focus on parental enjoyment), the kids loved it, and I know that because I went to the school matinee where I could see them sit up straighter when the sharks came and ooh and ahh whenever something glowed. Remember oohing and ahhing whenever something glowed? Those were the days.
After an afternoon at YPT, I headed to the beautiful Elgin Theatre for opening night of the panto (which actually has fewer kids in attendance than a normal performance because it’s mostly industry folk, but press get up to four tickets so you can bring your own barometers of childlike joy, aka actual children). While YPT is specifically, mostly for kids and can thus, even at its best, be a little tiresome for adults, the panto is designed to be Shrek-like with its dirty and political jokes sent flying over the heads of the children who are there to enjoy the fairytale (the “fractured” part is for the adults). But, despite this adult element, the panto always takes me right back to being a kid because, unlike YPT, Ross Petty and his 19-year-old tradition was a part of my own childhood (back when Petty’s wife Karen Kain used to show up onstage from time to time). With recurring characters and callbacks o’plenty, the panto rewards loyalty, showing as much love to its long-time fans as Petty does to his frequent collaborators- like the great Eddie Glen and fearlessly silly Dan Chameroy- with whom he freely improvises. “Here I am, back where I belong, in a dress” he says upon entering as the villainous stepmother, to some of the loudest cheers (and joyful boos) of the night. Also receiving loud cheers was Jeff Lillico’s winning turn as a pop star of Bieber-y proportions who is secretly nice and just wants to help kids eat healthy. He’s admittedly dreamy, but the audience’s squeals are too deliciously ironic considering playwright Reid Janisse is attempting to mock the shallow squeals Max Charming elicits from the likes of evil stepsisters Shakiki and Nastine (the latter played by Bryn McAuley in a Kim Kardashian mockery for the ages). The “ew”-laden introductory song for that particular gruesome twosome is one of the show’s best, though I admit that this year I recognized almost none of the pop songs being referenced (I’m old, I guess, but at least I knew “Shake it Off”!). An excellent chorus (as always) and a strong lead (Danielle Wade is definitely my favourite in Petty’s roster of ingénues) did their part to make Cinderella stand out (I also really do appreciate the casting of a legitimately great actor in the prince role, which is usually generically charming, if you’ll forgive the pun) but the make-or-break factor with the panto is always the writing and Janisse brought his A-game this year with a smart, relevant take on one of the weaker plots in the classic fairytale canon. The marketing may suggest it’s like all the others and, in all the good ways, it is, but Cinderella is a uniquely strong outing for an institution that always makes me a giddy eight year old again, if only for two hours.