At Laguna Playhouse, ‘Cinderella Christmas’ is as good as panto gets

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By Eric Marchese 

This December is the eighth time Lythgoe Family Productions has brought one of its pantos to Laguna Playhouse, and “A Cinderella Christmas” that runs through December 29 is as good as it gets, typifying what the Lythgoes skillfully bring to Orange County with each new show.

Mark Gagliardi, Joely Fisher and Jeff Sumner star in “A Cinderella Christmas.” Jason Niedle/Tethos.

The professionalism starts with Bonnie Lythgoe’s expert direction and savvy casting, the lineup headed by Veronica Dunne as Cinderella, Joely Fisher as her exploitative stepmother, and Mark Gagliardi and Jeff Sumner (disguised as women!) as her cruel stepsisters.

Buttons (Ben Giroux), the heroine’s BFF, addresses the Laguna crowd directly, interacting with us while instructing us to boo Fisher and cheer for Dunne, all while delivering one-liners that are deliberately stale (and not all of which are necessarily meant for kids).

His running patter includes the aside “Try being a SAG actor!” and at least one Taylor Swift joke.

That Kris Lythgoe’s script delivers multiple reliable laughs per minute is also a hallmark of the Lythgoe family pantos: When Fisher’s Baroness spells out the word “respect,” her airhead daughter asks, “Is that a naughty word? Is that why you spelled it?” Even old vaudeville jokes that never grow stale are worked in: “I didn’t come here to be insulted.” “Oh really? Where do you usually go?”

Veronica Dunne and Patrick Ortiz (center) with the company of “A Cinderella Christmas.” Jason Niedle/Tethos.

Topical laughs refer to Prince Charming (Patrick Ortiz) as “the greatest huntsman in all of Laguna.” While Laguna is glorified, Costa Mesa receives potshots. And other laugh lines are cynically bitter, as when the Baroness notes that “dreams are for those who can afford them.”

Depicting Cinderella’s stepsisters as drag queens and calling them Hollywood and Vine is truly inspired, generating some of the evening’s biggest chuckles. Sumner’s Hollywood and Gagliardi’s Vine are booed heavily as they make their entrance via the aisles and come up onto the stage, tossing epithets at us and their nemesis, Cinderella (e.g. “Swiffer-Ella”).

The laugh, though, is on these two, so butt-ugly that a ghost aiming to scare them runs screaming in terror.

Dunne’s Cinderella is infinitely appealing by projecting vulnerability and humility – often touchingly so, yet without veering into overt sentiment. She’s neither the plucky, defiant heroine nor the whining, downtrodden victim, but a wholesome yet not excessively (nor off-puttingly) virtuous girl next door.

Forced as she is into lowly servitude by the Baroness, the number “Nine to Five” is Cinderella’s mantra, Dunne giving it as much vocal power and conviction as Dolly Parton. Her restrained energy suits the song “Cupid” to a tee as Cinderella expresses her sense that she’ll never again find the Prince, and she turns the Billie Eilish number “What Was I Made For?” into a soulful, poignant solo that avoids any bathos and comes straight from her heart.

When singing numbers like “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet,” Ortiz serves up a pleasingly mellifluous, slightly deep tenor, and he’s even more adept when dancing. He and Dunne are a comfortable onstage couple, infusing the slow-tempo, beautiful “When You Love Someone” duet – an obligatory but definitely welcome power ballad – with powerful emotion.

With her crisp British dialect, polished façade and near-icy exterior, Fisher is one cooly sexy villainess, entertainingly (and aptly) doing “When You’re Good to Mama,” the come-hither song from “Chicago,” as a spoofy parody.

Tall Sumner and the shorter Gagliardi good-naturedly oblige their campy roles as drag queens, clearly into the gaudy fun of playing gawky, hilariously homely dames. Each generates laughs, but Sumner clearly evokes the early Phyllis Diller, one of the most laughably unappealing show-biz ladies of all time.

As Buttons, Giroux is part court jester, part buffoon, part stand-up comic and full-time M.C., interacting with us and keeping the show moving. Giroux displays no more chagrin toward the thanklessness of this task than does Buttons in his recognition that his love for Cinderella will never be requited.

As the Fairy Godmother, Jennifer Leigh Warren delivers a soaring, potent solo with “One Moment in Time,” and her take on “When You Believe” is a captivating (however Disney-ish) vocal turn. And with the cast clad in shimmering gold, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” gives the show the all-stops-out grand finale number it deserves.

The solid, sturdy ensemble’s five young ladies and four young gents display their versatility throughout. The number “Dynamite” showcases their impressive dance moves while creating visual appeal. When Ortiz’s Prince and Dandini (Austin Myers) join them, the scene becomes all the more hip and exciting.

Lythgoe touches abound, as when the “Cell Block Tango” lyrics “she had it comin’, she had it comin’, she only had herself to blame” are cruelly used to refer to Cinderella. The “La Cage aux Folles” anthem “I Am What I Am” is a smart addition, what with two focal characters being portrayed as drag queens. And the villains get their just desserts.

Generating the wintry storybook scenic design (uncredited) through photographs or video is an ingenious device, augmented by the stellar work of Haven Hanson, the show’s costume coordinator and also its hair and makeup designer.

The costumes sparkle, but the real fun is in seeing Sumner and Gagliardi in outrageously funny garb, as when Hollywood sports a Pink’s Hot Dogs bun as a skirt, matched by Vine’s In-N-Out burger on a bun. Their gala get-ups are more uproarious, with Hollywood a human Christmas Tree and Vine a shiny golden menorah, replete with a crazy, flaming headdress.

Becca Sweitzer’s choreography provides the visual appeal upon which shows like this so heavily rely, and musical director Andrew Street’s onstage piano-playing solidly girds the show’s cornucopia of vocal and dance numbers while bolstering its dialogue passages.

“A Cinderella Christmas” delivers just a handful of Christmas elements, but it’s true to both the spirit and the letter of the beloved fairy tale – and, lucky for us, it’s definitely a British panto in American clothing.

Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through December 29. Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes (includes intermission). Tickets: $36 to $71. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.org

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