If Ross Petty's annual holiday pantomime isn't a family tradition in your Toronto household, this may be the year to start making it one.
The Little Mermaid is one of the slicker, less indulgent fractured fairy tales from Petty's production company in recent memory. There are fewer in-jokes, but it is still gleefully anarchic – anchored by strong comic performances by Canadian musical royalty such as Chilina Kennedy and Dan Chameroy, spinning gold out of jokes that are both so bad they're good, and just plain good.
As Carl the Clownfish (played by the hilarious Reid Janisse, who also wrote the strong script) and Sponge Bill Triangle Pants (perennial Petty panto playmate Eddie Glen) explain in the opening number Public Domain (a rare original tune), this is not the cartoon-movie version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. With the officially Broadway-bound Aladdin playing down the street, however, count on plenty of digs at Disney.
Rather than Ariel, this show's heroine is Angel (Kennedy), who lives at the bottom of Toronto Harbour, where she hangs out with her mermaiden aunt Plumbum (Chameroy, back in smudged lipstick and fishnets) and a trio of fish-tailed friends whose high-pitched dialogue suggests they arrived in Lake Ontario via the valley.
While Angel's materialistic pals fight over human flotsam and jetsam they discover, she is concerned about the pollution of her natural habitat and plans she's heard humans above have to build a mega-casino on the waterfront. (The underwater scenes – as well as skylines of Toronto and Niagara Falls – are beautifully illustrated by projection artists Ben Chaisson and Beth Kates.)
As it turns out, famous B.C. monster Ogopogo (Ross Petty) is the underwater villain behind the development – which will also feature added airport runways and a cabaret of captured mermaids. His evil siren sidekick Eris is played by Jordan Clark, a winner of So You Think You Can Dance Canada (Petty could ease up on the ogle-pogo-ing of her very form-fitting costume).
It's up to Angel and her pals, as well as a boy-band from Toronto fronted by a hottie named Adam (Marc Devigne), to foil the plot – all while singing songs by Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson, as well a couple repurposed from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Gypsy.
The best part of this year's panto is that the romantic heroine has more than a sweet voice and demeanour for once – and gets as many laughs as her silly sidekicks. While it was earnest rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar that took her to Broadway, Kennedy has always impressed me most in musical comedy. She gets a chance to show off her chops in the second act when she is transformed into a human for a day in exchange for her voice. The fish-out-of-water physical comedy rises to a fever pitch when she enlists Shelly the Shrimp (Lana Carillo) to sing her part of the duet Everything Has Changed with Adam. The resulting duet for three is deliriously directed by Tracey Flye (with choreography by Marc Kimelman).
It wouldn't be a Petty panto review without me briefly chiding the creators a little for a lack of political correctness in the presence of children. This year, a joke about Plumbum being the love child of "Ethel Merman and her husband kd lang", along with multiple instances in which same-sex kisses almost happened accidentally, struck me as homophobic.
A madcap finale incorporating What Does the Fox Say? erased the bad taste of these few lapses – it's funnier than the viral video as far as I'm concerned.
I must admit I was doubly impressed this year seeing The Little Mermaid with a three-year-old, who somehow managed to stay awake and as engaged as I did through a two and a half hour show (with intermission) in the evening. Of course, the wonderful thing about the pantomime tradition that Petty riffs on is that it's built to accommodate restlessness and the occasional tantrum. Kids don't have to stay silent – they can boo the villain, cheer the heroine and even sing along to a song or two. You understand why live theatre continues to exist, as opposed to so much work out there – for children and adults – which makes you wonder why it wouldn't be better to pop in a Disney DVD or load up Netflix.
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