Perhaps it’s too farfetched to expect a princess to perform manual labor such as spinning yarn, but then the unlikely drives 19th century Brothers Grimm fairytales. This certainly applies to their “Briar Rose” tale where Aurora, a baby princess, is cursed by a malevolent fairy to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and thereafter fall into a 100-year long sleep. As in similar such tales, an itinerant prince falls in love with the seemingly lifeless maiden and wakes her with a kiss, and they live happily ever after.
The “Briar Rose” tale serves as the model for this year’s Lythgoe Family production, a panto titled “Sleeping Beauty and her Winter Knight.”
It opens for previews on Wednesday, Dec. 7, and runs Dec. 9-30 at the Laguna Playhouse.
“Audience participation is a key ingredient of Pantos, a British holiday tradition. It’s based on raucous re-telling and staging of traditional stories and a great way to introduce kids to the joys of live theater, while also engaging their parents and grandparents,” said Becky Lythgoe, the show’s producer. “The best part is that the shows are totally interactive, giving everyone an opportunity to fall in love with theater.”
“Sleeping Beauty…” is the second panto performed at the Playhouse. Last year, audiences were introduced to the genre via “A Snow White Christmas,” a light-hearted take on a darkish tale, accompanied by singing and dancing to both vintage and contemporary popular music.
This year’s production will adhere to a similar formula replete with character embellishments such as Nanny Tickle, who is embodied by Jeff Sumner. He was featured in the film “Dumb and Dumber,” among others. Then there’s Silly Billy, played by Benjamin Schrader, an original cast member of the Broadway musical “Book of Mormon.”
He functions as a court jester who keeps audience interaction constant. There is not much action to be expected from a young woman who’s asleep for half the show, remarked Kris Lithgoe, who wrote the book. Cozi Zuehlsdorff, known for her part in the film “Dolphin’s Tale,” embodies Aurora.
Meanwhile, Silly Billy also yearns to become a knight, hence the “..Winter Knight,” but that’s all that is to be revealed here.
Aurora’s dad is transmogrified into “the King of Laguna” and embodied by Barry Pearl, who returns to the Playhouse after performing in “The Allergist’s Wife” in 2005.
For now, he describes himself as a typical fairytale king, absent-minded and protective of his daughter and his kingdom, somewhat resembling Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Having been immersed in the musical “Grease,” he said that he loves to sing rock’n roll and dance. No stranger to pantos, he played the sultan in “Aladdin and his Winter Wish.” Who’s missing here is the queen mum. “She is in her chambers spinning gold,” quipped Pearl.
“There will be references to ‘Grease’ and other pop fare and we will ad-lib some stuff, something we all jump at the chance to do,” he said.
The Lythgoe’s two sons, George, 9, and Leo, 2, keep inspiring the couple to produce pantos. “We did not find anything in America to take them to like the holiday shows in England,” said Ms. Lythgoe.
“Most Americans know European fairytales from Disney, but they are hundreds of years old and a timeless tradition. Every Christmas these fairytales come to life, enhanced by new pop music, which is something I brought from England,” said Mr. Lythgoe.
For many children, pantos are their first experience seeing live theater and one that might set them up for serious theater later. “It’s also that the arts are very elitist. For a family of four to see a musical in Los Angeles is nearly impossible. Here we have tickets for $99, nearly the same as going to the movies,” he added.
He said that writing pantos has been a family affair since he was a baby. His father, Nigel Lithgoe, wrote them and tested jokes on his family. Lithgoe Sr. also intermittently served as executive producer for “American Idol” beginning in 2002.
Under Kris Lithgoe’s pen, the evil fairy Maleficent turned into Caraboose since Disney holds the copyright on that character, he explained.
Joely Fisher is no stranger to playing off-beat characters such as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” and joyfully takes ownership of Caraboose. “I can’t say that I am typecast, but from time to time I get cast as an evil woman. But here, it’s delicious to stir up the audience playing the baddie, but also get the good songs,” she said. A mother of five and “glamma” to two, she is as excited as the rest of the cast to introduce theater to kids of all ages.
So how will she define her character? “In every evil character there is pain underneath. Caraboose is a layered character with fun and campiness and I try to find places where she is not entirely evil and show her depth,” said Fisher.
For Laguna Playhouse artistic director Ann E. Wareham, she is intent on remaking local holiday traditions with an annual pantos production.