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Three cheers (boos?) for a beautifully beastly Christmas panto

3 out of 4 stars

Three boos for producer/stage villain Ross Petty, whose Torontonian twist on the British holiday pantomime tradition is now in its 15th year. (In the topsy-turvy world of Petty panto, a boo is equivalent to a cheer.)

Beauty and the Beast is a sturdy example of his brand of family show where fairy tales are fractured, then the cracks are filled in with pop songs and minor Canadian celebrities.

As rewritten by Lorna Wright and Nicholas Hune-Brown, this year's story is almost completely snapped off from its original plot (not to mention that of the popular 1991 Disney animated film).

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In this version, Prince Zak ( Degrassi's Jake Epstein) is a timid wannabe rock star who makes a Faustian pact with the Baron Barnum von Cowell (Petty); the Baron will use his magical iScroll to give Zak the confidence to sing in front of crowds and ask the beautiful peasant Bella (Melissa O'Neil) out on a date, but as a side effect he'll be transformed into The Beast.

Von Cowell's evil app is actually part of a dastardly plan to seize the crown. He also has a side get-rich-quick scheme that angers the animal-loving Bella, one involving using another app to transform animals into enslaved pop stars. His two biggest successes to date are Buskin' Beaver, played by a powerful, pint-sized Meghan Hoople complete with Justin Bieber swish, buckteeth and a beaver tail, and Lady Baa Baa (Lisa Lennox), who was Bella's beloved pet lamb before she was turned into an attention-seeking, meat-dress-wearing singer.

Among those enlisted to stop Baron von Cowell are Jake Simons's blustery Antonio and The Kids in the Hall's Scott Thompson, donning a dress to play Bella's inventor maiden aunt. Performing dialogue is clearly not the comedian's forte and his line readings are frequently stilted. But when he pulls out his impersonation of the Queen or is unleashed to improvise with a group of cowering children invited up on the stage, he is downright hilarious.

According to a focus group of 12-year olds I brought with me to Beauty and the Beast - Stefan and Gideon - this year's show deserves three and a half stars. Both thought that the ideal age range for the show was 10 to 13, but I'd say you could move the lower age limit down a couple of years. Kids much younger than that will find the overly complicated story less accessible and may find the pacing too pokey. Indeed, the glaring omission from this Petty production is a warm, friendly fairy narrator to engage the younger ones from the start.

Instead, Beauty and the Beast kicks off with a cold show-within-a-show framing device that's mostly there to get a poke or two in at Twilight and other vampire obsessions. (Habits are hard to break for Hune-Brown, who got this gig based on a couple of Fringe meta-musicals he wrote, notably The Lord of the Rings: The Musical: The Musical.)

While this jukebox musical takes much too long to get going, once Prince Zak has been transformed, Ted Dykstra's production is fairly smooth, silly sailing with some of the most enjoyable, tuneful musical performances of recent editions. The talented and charismatic Epstein, who has been touring for the last year in Spring Awakening, and O'Neil, a former Canadian Idol with natural stage presence, have strong chemistry duetting on Celine Dion's Taking Chances. The playlist is much more up to date this time around, and includes Lady Gaga's Bad Romance, Adam Lambert's If I Had You, Miley Cyrus's Life's a Climb and Bieber's ubiquitous Baby, all of which get snappy choreography from Tracey Flye.

As for Petty's snide asides to the audience, alas, this is not a vintage year. It's still the evening's chief pleasure to boo him, but his comebacks seem only half-written as of yet - all pop-culture or political reference, no punchline. One about Toronto's new mayor Rob Ford was complete, but in poor taste and deserves a genuine hiss for inserting a bit of maliciousness into a otherwise unifying night of silly entertainment.

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Beauty and the Beast

  • Written by Lorna Wright and Nicholas Hune-Brown
  • Directed by Ted Dykstra
  • Starring Jake Epstein, Melissa O'Neil and Scott Thompson
  • At the Elgin Theatre in Toronto

Beauty and the Beast runs until Jan. 2.

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