They’ve already brought us The Phantom of the Panto. So why not Santa Claus: The Panto?
Producers Lyn Verra-Lay and Mike Balser of the Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society freely agree the group has positioned itself on the edgier, more experimental end of the local Christmas pantomime spectrum.
That’s certainly true of the world premiere of Santa Claus, which will kick off the Christmas panto season Nov. 26 to Dec. 7 at Surrey Arts Centre, 13750 – 88 Ave.
Audiences can rest assured that the FVGSS shows are seldom so anti-traditional that they neglect such time-honoured, enjoyable panto schtick as a Dame, a principal boy-girl and girl-girl, familiar songs, nefarious villainy and tons of goofy groaners and topical political gags.
But one can definitely expect some unusual and novel twists in Santa Claus, an original by panto veteran Adrian Duncan, plus the father-daughter team of Jeff and Hannah Christensen and long-time panto-meister Balser, society president, who also co-authored and directed last year’s The Frog Princess.
Like most stories, it starts with a ‘what if?’ – supplied, in this case, by Duncan.
Suppose Santa Claus has decided he’s more than due for a makeover? Suppose a new diet, intensive yoga and a ‘cool-dude’ attitude has transformed him into something far from the Santa of old?
As embodied by lead player Luke George Branson, this streamlined Santa is very different from the expected image, Balser and Verra-Lay acknowledge.
“Luke is 28, about 5 ft. 8″ and maybe 140 lbs. soaking wet,” said Balser, who did some development reworking of the original script together with Duncan and the Christensens.
There’s stakes-raising character conflict in Mrs. Claus’ (panto dame Croy Jenkins) reaction to Santa’s makeover, he said.
“Santa wants to change and Mrs. Claus doesn’t like it at all. It’s change versus no change.”
Both he and Verra-Lay quip that the panto is still a work in progress.
“We decided a year ago we would co-produce, and we’re almost finished,” laughed Verra-Lay, who noted with Balser that, even with instinct and experience in play, a new panto has to reach the workshop/rehearsal phase to truly discover where the telling moments – and, ultimately, the laughs – are.
Fortunately the show has a solid and reliable creative framework in place, including skilled performer-director Dann Wilhelm as artistic director (“I find it difficult to walk away from the directing job,” Balser admitted), musical director Tim Tucker, choreographer Carol Seitz and assistant choreographer Elizabeth Lay.
Other agreeably reliable elements are supplied by dithery senior elf Bobo (Clive Ramroop), progress-oriented principal boy Kristopher (Breanna Branson), principal girl Kristabel (Samantha Andrews, a loyal panto perennial for the last decade) and Fairy Wintergreen (Kate Naylor).
Chief villain of the piece is crafty coal salesman Carbone Bootmark (Chris Hall), intent on boosting Santa’s coal bill by turning nice kids naughty, aided and abetted by his sidekick Teazel the Weasel (Jen Tiles, of White Rock panto fame, in yet another of her hilarious cartoony animal characterizations).
There’s also a ‘panto’ animal – Rudolph the Reindeer – portrayed by Rebecca Teskey and Fraser McKay – and the Christensens’ real-life canine companion Max portrays Olive ‘The Other Reindeer.’
Balser said working with the writing collaborators has actually proceeded very smoothly.
Duncan, coming from traditional panto experience, is a past-master in inventing ingratiatingly funny names for the characters, he said.
“Hannah – who’s only 16 – is the one who keeps the plot logical, while Jeff is the guy who, while we’re talking about how to resolve one character’s arc, says ‘let’s put in a Christy Clark joke.’ With him you’re either saying ‘that’s brilliant!’ or ‘yeah…no.'”
Hannah – who has performed in several of the recent pantomimes with her notably droll magician/comedian dad – said Duncan suggested she join the writing team after he heard she wrote and published a children’s book, Sock Wars, when she was only 11 (dedicated to the memory of her late little brother, Jonah, who died when she was nine, it made headlines five years ago when she sold thousands of copies for the Raise-A-Reader charity).
She has been enjoying her behind-the-scenes work in Santa Claus as much as her role as the elf Elvira, she said.
“It’s been wonderful seeing ideas that were only taking place in someone’s mind taking form on stage,” she said. “It’s really cool, the dynamic of seeing everything coming together.”
Jeff Christiansen, who claims he was originally “tricked” into becoming part of the FVGSS pantomime family by Balser while he was developing stage presence for his magic work, was awarded the gold medal by the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians earlier this year for his new mentalist (mind-reading) act.
He’s actually playing a magician – Presto – in Santa Claus, he said, adding that as much as he enjoys using his FVGSS experience in his own act, he also likes using his training to enrich the magical aspects of the pantos’ Fairy Tale ethos.
That includes adding an audience-interactive mentalism element to this year’s show, he said.
“It just fit in so nicely – of course Santa would know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice!”
Show performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
To reserve tickets, call 604-501-5566.