The strength of the White Rock Players Club’s annual Christmas pantomime has always been the club’s irreverent – and distinctly local – slant on an old English stage tradition.
Starting with the 1954 Babes In The Woods, created by Players Club pioneers Franklin and Charlotte Johnson, the White Rock pantomime quickly became the talk of the Lower Mainland, establishing its own set of traditions along the way, many of which survive in current pantos.
Key to retaining the distinctive White Rock panache has been the writing of original scripts – and the 2012 pantomime, Pinocchio, is in the grand tradition: a unique adaptation of the classic Carlo Collodi tale by panto veteran and club president Dave Baron.
The colourful show, directed by Susanne de Pencier, with musical direction by Kerry O’ Donovan, runs until Dec. 29 at the Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd.
The process of creating a brand new pantomime – the club’s 58th – started well over a year ago, Baron said.
“I knew I was going to write a new pantomime, but the big question was what was it going to be?” he recalled.
“We’d used a lot of the panto staples – Snow White, Cinderella, Sinbad and Aladdin. But I was inspired by an interesting audience comment after last year’s show (Mother Goose). Someone said there was no clear sense of good and evil, that there just wasn’t a believable villain.
“I thought that was true – we’ve always done more comic villains.”
The quest for true villainy – and less-travelled panto territory – eventually led Baron to Pinocchio, he said.
“I remembered the Disney version, obviously, and I thought there were a couple of villains in that that could be useful. But in terms of our format, we need one really nasty villain.”
A search back through the archives revealed that Franklin and Charlotte Johnson had also produced a Pinocchio in the 1960s – but Baron quickly realized it was a product of its times that would not translate well for modern audiences.
“It was quite appalling how times have changed, in terms of what kind of humour they could get away with then,” he said. “I also didn’t like the villain at all.”
Baron went back and read the original 1883 Collodi story – only to find there was way too much material for a direct adaptation to work.
“I didn’t realize it was such a saga,” he said.
But there was a darkness in the tale (Collodi reputedly didn’t like children very much, and used the obstinate and mouthy Pinocchio as a vehicle for lecturing them on their bad behaviour) that did, ultimately, stick with him.
From the pages of the original, Baron drew the inspiration for making a puppet master the principal villain, played in the show by Players Club veteran Martin Perrin.
“I call him Signor Scagliare, which means Mr. Fire-eater,” Baron said. “He’s a scammer, an evil showman.”
Scagliare has used the secret of a hapless, now deceased magician (“he’d have died a lot easier if he’d given me the secret sooner,” he sneers) to create lifelike puppets out of real people.
But fearing official wrath, he seeks to add Pinocchio (Michelle Gaetz) – a real wooden puppet come to life – to his collection, to divert suspicion from his other ‘puppets.’
Scagliare’s minions, Fox (Jennifer Tiles) and Cat (Elyse Raible,) are also drawn from the original story, Baron notes.
But he admits he has taken great liberties with the original to cast events and characters in traditional panto mold – and offer a nod and wink to audience expectations.
Instead of the Jiminy Cricket of the Disney version, for instance, this Pinocchio offers twins – ‘Gemini Crickets’ 1 and 2 – played by Reilly Olexson and Kate Naylor.
And readers will scan the original in vain for such characters as Pinocchio’s sweetheart, Isabella (Melissa Paras), or her overbearing aunt, Miss Ann Thrope – although the latter supplies a ready-made broad comedy ‘Dame’ role for Bryce Paul Mills.
Baron said he also takes full responsibility for Admiral Horatio Suckblower – a role tailored for the unique comedic instincts of panto veteran Ray Van Ieperen. He’s a nautical chap who turns out to be the bilge cleaner of a seriously off-course BC Ferry, as well as supplying a handy romantic interest for Miss Ann – just in time for perennial panto number The Year We Fell In Love.
Also featured in the show are Melanie Minty, as Isabella’s missing mother Sophia, Nigel Watkinson as Geppetto, Ryan Elliott as the Godfather, and Suzanne Benson and Patte Rust, double cast as the Old Puppet.
Adding extra flair to the staging of Pinocchio is choreography by Lena Dabrusin, set design by Andrea Olund and costumes by Heather Maximea.
For tickets ($18, $16 seniors, students and Coast Capital members) and further information, call 604-536-7535, visit www.whiterockplayers.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org