Beauty and the Beast: You’ll Roar With Laughter

jake simons, eddie glen, ross petty,
melissa o’neil, jake epstein
photo by Bruce Zinger. 
There are few things that can get me into the holiday spirit quite like the magical theatrical romp that is the Ross Petty Pantomime, and this year’s production of Beauty and the Beast, which plays at the Elgin Theatre until January 2, 2011, is certainly no exception. As I sat in the theatre filled with excited and enraptured children, it struck me what a delightful family tradition that Ross Petty has given to Toronto for the past fifteen years as I considered how even more eagerly I would have awaited this night out if I were an elementary school student. The perfect balance of fairy tale, musical theatre, broad physical and situational comedy, slapstick, mildly racy innuendo for the adults, along with the interactive nature of the piece makes pantomime a perfect introduction to the grownup theatre for impressionable young audiences.
Writers Lorna Wright and Nicholas Hume-Brown have shaken and stirred the tradition tale of Beauty and the Beast to create a fresh, action-packed adventure centered on Bella (catch that Twilight reference?), the conventionally beautiful peasant girl, who longs to marry her true love and in the process learns that often appearances can be deceiving. In this production, instead of the Prince being selfish with a penchant for throwing temper tantrums, Prince Zack is a shy and nervous poet, the front man of his band who turns to Jell-O the moment he has an audience. He strikes a deal with the evil villain Barnum von Cowell to turn him into a suave, confident rock n’ roll star in attempt to win Bella’s affections, but the side effect is that without true love’s first kiss (before all the petals fall from a rose) his wild and rock n’ roll persona (a Beastie Boy in the very truest sense) will become permanent and he will regress into a increasingly savage animal. The dialogue is chock-full of puns all delivered with the ultimate in cheek and frivolity, which makes the entire experience a continuous delight.
The story is given an exuberant boost from the pop songs that pepper the evening including silly renditions of Celine Dion’s “Taking Chances,” Adam Lambert’s “If I Had You,” Miley Cyrus’s “Life’s a Climb,” Wild Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music White Boy” and “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters, all of which are choreographed with feisty spirit by Tracey Flye and enriched by the dynamite dance moves of the ensemble. The rest of the cast is in brilliant form as well. Jake Simons and Eddie Glen play Antonio and Burt respectively, Prince Zack’s loyal sidekicks and band mates who are also affected by von Cowell’s spell (reminiscent of Cogsworth and Lumiere from the 1991 Disney film). Simons is somewhere between Robert Goulet and Pepe the Muppet King Prawn as Antonio, while Glen’s Bert shines extra bright during the ‘welcome to the castle’ song (clearly an ode to Disney’s famed “Be Our Guest”). Lisa Lennox is a baaing wonder as Bella’s fickle pet lamb, Lady Baa Baa. Melissa O’Neil gives a beautiful performance as Bella, a heroine who is ambitious, smart, self assured and who reads voraciously. O’Neill has a powerful pop star voice that suits the pantomime playlist and flavour to perfection, but she is also a lovely actor, who creates Bella to be a genuine and strong role model for the young audience members. She has nice chemistry with Jake Epstein, who shines both in his portrayal of Prince Zack as nervous and Seymour Krelborn-esque, as well as his rock star alter ego. Epstein has a smooth voice that suits the pop genre very well and an affable charm that wins the audience’s affinity instantaneously.
Ross Petty, as always, is perfectly villainous as Barnum von Cowell; utterly gleeful about his crusade to bring as much misery to the goodhearted as possible, while making the audience complicit to his meta-theatrical, improvised, topical and often political musings and jokes. He always creates a slimy character that the audience loves to hate, and Mr. Von Cowell is certainly no exception. His rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” is one of the funniest of the evening. Scott Thompson plays Bella’s maiden Aunt Plinky with complete exuberance, panache and, of course, a sharp sensibility of how to milk every single joke, circumstantial and physical comedy, for the absolute maximum comic potential. Of everyone in the cast, Thompson seems to having the most fun. From his hilarious rendition of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring on It)” to the assurance that something in her bag will save the end of the show, the mirth and joyful energy that Thompson pumps into his larger than life character is utterly infectious. The star of the show, however, is Meghan Hoople who plays Von Cowell’s sidekick, Buskin’ Beaver, whose name I think speaks for itself. Hoople creates a hilarious and perfectly detailed character that is a perfect balance between rodent and tween idol. Her physicality suggests Beiber immediately, and her rendition of “Baby” is hysterical simply for how flawlessly she is able to mimic both Beiber’s singing and his performance style. If Hoople was on Saturday Night Live, Beiber would doubtlessly be her Sarah Palin. It is a true star turn, I’d watch out for her in the coming months if I were you!
Ted Dykstra’s directing style of these Pantomimes always remind me of the cartoons that I loved so much when I was a kid, the ones where the characters were continually chasing one another, where I sometimes suspended my disbelief for the benefit of a silly gag and where everything always seemed to happen at the same time in the exact same sort of controlled chaos that will erupt on any playground or in any bedroom that has more than three children playing in it at any one given time (or fewer if the children are especially imaginative). Anyone who thinks that this pantomime is too “complicated” or “busy” for its intended audience’s to grasp hold of might want to spend some more time playing with five to ten year olds. I think that Dykstra has an exceptionally firm grasp on the sensibilities of children and I applaud him and the writers for refusing to talk down to their youngest audience members.
I thought that Beauty and the Beast was a wild good time, but I noticed that there was a little girl (about six years old) sitting in the seat behind me wearing a beautiful yellow Belle gown, who looked to me to be a sort of Beauty and the Beast expert and connoisseur. When asked whether she enjoyed the pantomime she responded with a very quick and spirited, “YES!” I then asked her what her favourite part of the show was, to which she said, “Oh, I can’t answer that. I like every single part.”
She likes every single part. The expert has spoken. Take the kids you love to Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast plays at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street) until January 2nd, 2011. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.872.5555 or visit www.ticketmaster.ca or  http://www.rosspetty.com/tickets.php    

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