Ross Petty's annual fractured fairy tale usually gets me in the holiday spirit: they're raucous, they're ridiculous, they're just plain fun for kids of all ages.
Cinderella – this year's edition, penned by Reid Janisse and directed by Tracey Flye – left me feeling like a Grinch, however. What on Earth went wrong? Well, it's all about too much and not enough.
1. Not enough diversity. If you're dreaming of a white Christmas, then Cinderella may be the show for your family – as every single character, from the evilest step-mother to the most innocuous ensemble member, is played by a snow-coloured actor.
This is terrible casting even if your main concern is merely verisimilitude. Janisse's rewrite transplants Cinderella to Toronto – and much is made in a clunky framing device (told in rap, no less) that this isn't a stuffy old version, but one set in 2014. And yet, the only non-white face we see on stage is an animated Olivia Chow zipping by on a streetcar in one of Beth Kates's and Ben Chaisson's projections.
Add to this that Cinderella's tiresomely bratty stepsisters (Bryn McAuley and Cleopatra Williams) wear Nicki Minaj-inspired costumes and rap, a recurring joke about the Carlton dance from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and a couple of joke Italian and Spanish accents, and this is the least-welcoming Petty panto I've attended. He's usually sharper than this; what a shame.
2. Too many plot twists. Comedian Janisse has been responsible for some of Petty's best pantos – including last year's wonderful The Little Mermaid. But his Cinderella is altogether too convoluted – starting from that hard-to-follow framing device that riffs off Wayne's World and Harry Potter at once.
Cinderella (a charming Danielle Wade) will inherit her father's organic vegetable market when she turns 21 in two weeks. But, in the interim, her stepmother Revolta Bulldoza (Ross Petty) is taking over the market to sell chips. But the chips are also Hypno-chips that she will use to take over the city.
However, Revolta's real plan is to hypnotize handsome pop star and healthy-food advocate Max Charming (Jeff Lillico, looking a little shell-shocked) and then marry him so she can get his fortune – and then destroy the organic market and build a chip factory and make a fortune.
Wait, what? And what happened to Cinderella? She, like everyone else, ends up at the Eligi-ball (here a CBC reality TV show), where she would meet and fall in love with Max – if she hadn't already met and fallen in love with his alter ego Matt on Queen Street. She loses a shoe, of course, but she lost the plot long before.
3. Not enough healthy snacks – and no nut-free snacks – at intermission. Come on, Elgin Theatre; think of the kids.
4. Too many weak female characters. Men in dresses are a part of the British pantomime tradition that Petty's productions riff on – but they shouldn't entirely dominate the proceedings. Petty is back in drag here as the evil stepmother, but there's also Dan Chameroy as a fairy godmother named Plumbum. Aside from them, the female characters consist of the two shrieking stereotypical stepsisters and a female chorus who have to play Max's screaming fans. (My ears.) Which leaves us with Cinderella, and there is …
5. Not enough Cinderella. Sachi, four years old, liked this character the most – and I only wish there had been more of her as she is sweet and smart and Wade's well-sung performance is geared toward kids. Too much time passes (especially in the poorly paced, ad-studded first act) without our heroine, as kids have to suffer through joke after joke that either flies way over their heads or consists of a variation on "you look like a butt."
6. Not enough rehearsal. It's one thing to ad lib, to interact with the audience, to play around in the loose panto style, but Cinderella had altogether too much bumbling around off book on opening night. Petty simply admitted at a point that he couldn't remember his lines as there had been a lot of rewriting in the past week. Even Chameroy, whose Plumbum is as usual a comic highlight, milks gags a little too long this time around.
What's odd is that this Cinderella is the slickest Petty production I've seen in other ways – the design by Michael Gianfranceso looks great and the choreography by Robin Calvert is top-notch. It's only what matters that is missing.
At the end, I asked Plum, who is four years old and really liked that Plumbum's name was up in lights during one number, whether Cinderella was better, the same or worse than The Little Mermaid last year. "Worse," she said without hestitation. Yep, here's hoping for a return to form next year.
Cinderella continues to Jan. 4. For tickets, visit rosspetty.com.