Adapted from J.M. Barrie Directed by Glen Kotyk Starring Sheila McCarthy and Ross Petty At the Elgin Theatre, in Toronto Thursday **
For five Christmases now, actor and producer Ross Petty has insisted Toronto be subjected to the hoary old English tradition of the Yuletide pantomime. No matter how sweet the siren call of colonial nostalgia, these entertainments with their uncredited and bloated fairy-tale scripts interrupted by unfunny modernisms and hammy performances were often less than seductive. But this year, Petty has a more promising premise: the stage version of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan with the lively figure of Sheila McCarthy in the title role.
The action begins in front of the curtain with a bland little scene featuring a story-telling grandpa played by Ernie Coombs (a.k.a. Mr. Dressup) proposing to go undercover to find out if tonight's tale has a happy ending.
The curtain rises on a London street scene in which the Darling family saves an urchin from the police before hurrying home to their cozy nursery, introduce the magical Peter Pan and the fairy Tinkerbell, and before long, Wendy, John and Michael are flying off to Neverland to fight the pirate Captain Hook.
Turns out, Petty has adapted this very loosely from Barrie's play, inventing a lot of the plot but keeping the familiar characters who are interesting enough to sustain a proper storyline. At Thursday's opening, the action in the first half was plagued by a nasty crackling from the amplification system and leaden pacing from actors of all ages that must have left director Glen Kotyk grinding his teeth. The jokes for the adults are utterly feeble and, in the role of both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, Petty often botched their delivery.
Meanwhile, the unremarkable songs contributed by Judy and David Gershon proved to be largely decorative interruptions rather than emotional catalysts for the story. But by the time Peter et al. were satisfactorily flying about the stage on wires, it was clear that this was a passable entertainment for children: This year's pantomime has vaulted from the embarrassing category to the merely mediocre.
Robert McCarrol and Sharmaine Ryan offer some amusement in the roles of Smee the pirate and Tinkerbell the fairy, but the chief delight here is McCarthy. She's always a spritely soul, and with her delicate frame sewn into tight green togs and her squeakiest little-girl voice well in place, she achieves a kind of elfin androgeny perfectly suited to the role. The second-best thing about the show is Petty, not when he's doing his lame asides for the benefit of the adults, but when he's playing the dastardly villain to the hyped-up kids. Yes, in more ways than one, Ross Petty is a great man to boo.
Until Jan. 6 at the Elgin Theatre. 416-872-5555.