Imagine a panto that looks just like a big pop-up children’s fairy tale book.
That’s the design concept Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society is going for in its latest Christmas pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk (Nov. 25-Dec. 6 at Surrey Arts Centre)
Directed by Mike Balser, and produced by Lyn Verra-Lay, it returns to traditional territory – after a few experimental years – with a tried-and-true British panto script of the fairy tale favourite, last produced by the society in 1988.
“That was the first FVGSS panto I was involved in, with all the family,” costume co-supervisor Linda O’Donovan recalled fondly.
And she and co-supervisor Chris Roberts, both South Surrey residents, have been more than happy to supply a costume plot for the show to match the set design of Omanie Elias’ (Balser’s spouse).
“She’s amazing; a wonderful scene painter,” said Roberts. “She does it for a living.”
“We’re lucky to have her involved in the shows through being married to the director,” added O’Donovan.
Other regular production veterans include Tim Tucker (musical director), Carol Seitz (choreographer) and props mistress Maxine Howchin.
O’Donovan and Roberts added it feels like old times to be reunited as the core of the costume team, missing only the presence of frequent team supervisor Melody Dickson (who has a few too many claims on her time to be involved this year).
In many ways, they said, FVGSS pantomimes are always like family get-togethers – their husbands have both been very involved over the years (Roberts’ husband Peter often taking on the role of the ‘dame’ since they entered the FVGSS fold in the early `90s) and their children have grown up steeped in in the annual tradition.
It usually happens that one family member in a production leads to the rest getting in on the fun, they said. FVGSS panto casts are rife with spouses and children sharing the stage, or pitching in with costumes, scenery construction and other backstage chores – with a usual commitment of some 10 hours a week through the rehearsal period.
“It’s a wonderful way for a child to get dance and singing and theatre training for relatively nothing outside of a membership to the society,” said O’Donovan.
“They’re not only learning stagecraft, but also about the importance of community – and finding lifelong friends.”
Both raised in England (Roberts grew up just north of London, while O’Donovan is from Derby) they don’t need special study to understand panto’s blend of fairy tale, music hall and burlesque that is the stuff of fond Christmas memories for most native Britons – or the look required for principal boy, principal girl, dame, comedy foils and generic villagers.
And having a clear sense of the idiom helps when you’re putting together pieces on a fixed budget that involves reworking costumes – a resource from decades of FVGSS shows – stored in the society’s warehouse.
And they’re quick to credit the help they’re receiving from volunteers who have taken ownership of one or two special costumes each in Jack and the Beanstalk, including the traditional panto animal, Daisy the Cow.
“‘Pantoland’ works really well in a pop-up village,” observed O’Donovan, while she and Roberts noted they have hewed to a more 18th-century look, rather than the medieval approach also popular in traditional panto design.
“I used to dance in pantomimes (in Britain) back in the days when the casts used to be divided into dancers and singers,” said Roberts, adding that the experience gave her an up-close insight into all the costume variations possible.
“You take lots of liberties with the period of costumes,” she added.
While a glitzed-up, over-the-top dame would seem to be mandatory, it wasn’t always the way, depending on the comedian taking the role, she said.
“One I worked with didn’t want anything fancy at all – he just wore a simple black dress.”
That’s not the approach with this year’s dame – Dame Trot – played by Roger Kettyls. A newcomer to society shows, he’s often played dames in Metro Theatre pantomimes.
“We’re putting together as many costume changes for him as possible, including a piece that he wore at Metro that he’s very comfortable with,” O’Donovan said.
“Another dame costume we purchased at the White Rock Players’ Club costume sale,” she added, with both she and Roberts noting that community-theatre groups, while still competitive at panto time (White Rock’s premieres Dec. 4, while the Royal Canadian Theatre Company’s is set for Dec. 18), tend to have a much greater sense of co-operation these days.
Other new blood in Jack and the Beanstalk are Elizabeth Seaman (Princess Melanie), Deanne Ratzlaff (Vegetable Fairy), Paige Thomsen (Goosepimple), Weldon Hoggatt (Clarence Clanger, town crier), and Dane Ogilvie (voice of the Giant).
Familiar faces include experienced and capable principal boy Michelle Gaetz as Jack; Dann Wilhelm, returning to panto for the first time in 10 years, and relishing the role of the villainous Fleshcreep; and ever-reliable Samantha Andrews as Jack’s brother Silly Billy.
Other regulars include Barbie Warwick and daughter Lois as Daisy, Breanna Branson (Mrs. Blunderbore), Adrian Duncan (King Sat-Upon), Rosie Forst (Queen Mum), Clive Ramroop (Goose voice and wrangler) and Lionel Rust and Alex Cameron as comedy duo Sargent Spic and Corporal Span.
Jack and the Beanstalk runs Wednesday to Saturday with evening performances at 7:30 p.m. Matinees are 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
For tickets, call 604-501-5566 or visit tickets.surrey.ca online.