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Ross Petty

Bruce Zinger

"How am I? A little harried to say the least."

It was barely October, but actor and theatre producer Ross Petty was stressing over his annual holiday pantomime production. He was in-between meetings with his director and writer, who were furiously finalizing the script for this year's "fractured fairy tale," Cinderella – The Gags to Riches Family Musical.

"We're three weeks away from rehearsal, which is around the time that all hell breaks loose," Petty says. "Even though it may look like we're kind of ad libbing our way through the show, we do indeed have a script."

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He's fighting the clock, then, and hoping his production doesn't turn into a pumpkin.

The Winnipeg-born Petty has been mounting panto for 24 years now. This year is his 19th at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto; before that he used the Royal Alex Theatre. When he calls his zany family shows "fractured," it's because they break radically – in the British pantomime tradition – from the more familiar presentations of the folk tales.

Saucy jokes are added, male actors are in drag – Petty dons a flattering form-fitting gown as the evil stepmother – and modern pop culture and other topical and local references are peppered in.

Saucy jokes are added, male actors are in drag – Petty dons a flattering form-fitting gown as the evil stepmother for Cinderella – and modern pop culture and other topical and local references are peppered in.

Though it's billed as family entertainment, double entendres and politically incorrect zingers fly willy-nilly. One Toronto critic took Petty to task for a k.d. lang joke in last year's The Little Mermaid, but, "The kids in the audience aren't going to understand a reference like that," Petty says. "It's a joke for the adults."

According to Petty, grown-ups account for more ticket sales than the pipsqueaks.

Ticket sales are important for Petty, a rare for-profit theatre producer in town. As well, to keep his annual production running, he depends on the kindness of sponsors. This year, Cinderella's Fairy Godmother is a bank. "I want to tell you that I just signed a three-year deal with CIBC," Petty says, giving a shout-out to Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Unlike the non-profits, Petty doesn't have access to government funding. His relationships with corporations help him get the shows off the ground before the box office kicks in.

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Petty, long married to Karen Kain, the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada and a former ballerina, traditionally plays the villain in his pantomimes. On stage, he laps up the boos and catcalls like a heel professional wrestler. In our conversation, however, Petty presents himself as the underdog, not the bad guy.

"Our Little Mermaid received 100-per-cent accolades across the board last year," Petty says. (The Globe and Mail's J. Kelly Nestruck granted the production a four-star rating, going so far as to declare that the show "reminds you why live theatre continues to exist.")

"We did really well compared to the big boys north of us," he continues, referring to the pre-Broadway, out-of-town tryout of Disney's Aladdin, which played nearby at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. "That musical was not as happily received as ours."

Petty can't resist jabbing this town's other for-profit producer, David Mirvish. When it is suggested that he (with his holiday pantomime) and wife Kain (with the National's The Nutcracker) are the Santa and Mrs. Claus of the Toronto theatre world, Petty laughs. "But David Mirvish always wants to cut in on the action. I think he's got Donny and Marie [Osmond] coming in [with] Christmas songs this year."

Indeed, Donny & Marie Christmas in Toronto plays for three weeks in December, at the Princess of Wales Theatre.

On a serious note, Petty takes exception to the lack of original musical theatre in Toronto. "I do it once a year, and it takes a hell of a long time to put the money together, and it takes a hell of a long time to put the creatives together," he says.

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"If I was as well-endowed, from a financial perspective, as David Mirvish, I could be writing cheques to bring in shows that are on the road," Petty says. "But I wish someone who had his financial resources would create new shows."

As far as something new, this year's Cinderella is freshly written – it is a completely different script from the 2008 production of Cinderella – The Sillylicious Family Musical.

And while Petty doesn't go so far as to cast Mirvish Productions as the evil stepmother to his own metaphorical Cinderella story, well, what can you say, except that if the shoe fits …

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