With all the chock-a-block talent on stage at this year’s White Rock Christmas pantomime, it takes an awfully special Demon to upstage the good guys.
But Hunter Golden’s bad guy is clearly a crowd favourite, as the White Rock Players Club’s Babes in the Woods evokes memories of the seaside city’s golden-age of pantomime, at least as this reviewer remembers it.
Like one recalls the performances of Johnson and Hilliard et al from decades past, this year’s offering celebrates its community feel – a community that might be slightly rough around the edges, a little unpolished, perhaps… but an emotion-filled sense of togetherness nonetheless.
First-time director (and players club stalwart) Lisa Pavilionis opens the show sure-footedly, keeping the introductions and dialogue moving swiftly well into the first act.
Our heroes – particularly YooRa Kang as Jack and Mackenzie Claus as Jill – infuse their characters with enough personality and traits to keep us interested in the most basic of storylines: protecting Pip (Lional Rust) and Squeak (Emma Harvey) from the evil clutches of Golden’s Demon.
Speaking of Golden – and if you see it, you shall – his pitch-perfect lyrical low register is enough to keep you listening to the Demon’s villainous shenanigans, even when he’s not mid-song.
Magically complementing our foil is Fairy Twinkle (Katherine Ariel Lozada) who brings plenty of welcome attitude to an otherwise-saccharin pantomime mainstay.
Returning as The Dame – this year in the form of Mother Hubbard – is Bryce Mills, bawdily yet family-friendily (boo/hiss, that’s not a word!) keeping the audience and his panto team in on the action, while he/she learns to just, well… let it go.
Indeed, this panto cast isn’t wanting for characters that inhabit “Novelrock.” Looking like a make-shift Storybrooke town meeting in TV’s Once Upon Time, each has his or her moment in the spotlight – from Dame Hubbard’s many children, to a little pig or three, to a corner-sitting Jack, to the cutest little lamb you ever did see.
In fact, unlike many chorus-heavy productions, Babes director Pavilionis and her production team shine the light on every single performer, giving each a moment to comedically shine with at least a punchline or two, backed by effective costumes (Pat McClean) and makeup (Susanne de Pencier), and bright choreography (Michelle Reid) and set design (Andrea Olund).
One of the simplest of characters, a sailor-suited Simon (Scott Townsend), returns again and again to give audience members a welcome smile – if not a smug sense of mental superiority.
While there are too many cast members to mention name by name, one unsung performer might not have made it to the stage, but she’s as valued a contributor as any. Pianist Shelley Eckstein did her part to keep up my remembrance of pantos long past, with enough flair and speed variations to set the ever-shifting mood.
One slight quibble: the speaker volume should be monitored from front of house, as some in the unamplified cast can’t compete with Eckstein’s rousing keyboard.
More than a quibble: a slight speed bump was felt halfway into the first act in Mother Hubbard’s unorthodox classroom, but nothing the excision of a cheesy pun or three wouldn’t alleviate.
And, finally, having the same premier public figure as the butt of not one, not two, but four gibes, seems stale, especially when our elected officials are kind enough to give us a veritable smorgasbord of perennially running targets.
But such critiques would likely have rung true back in the ’50s, ’60s and certainly the ’70s, the wonderful years I first fell in love with a visit to White Rock’s magical Christmastime getaway.
Judging from the receptive reaction of the younger ones in the three-quarters-filled theatre on last week’s opening night, there just might be a budding critic in the mix who will be reviewing this annual pageant in the decades to come.
Produced by Fred Partridge and Gordon Mantle, Babes in the Woods runs until Dec. 27 at Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd. Tickets at 604-536-7535, www.whiterockplayers.ca