Saturday 6 December 2014

White Rock panto Babes cures screen-itis

Backdrop and tell-all :  Some 35 years back I made my last formal appearances on stage. In a White Rock Players Club production of the music of Loerner & Lowe called On The Street Where You Live. Followed a couple years later with a stand-in stint as Man Friday in that year's pantomime production of Robinson Crusoe. 

Seeing the Club's 70th Anniversary Year panto mount of Babes In The Wood tonight brought back a host of memories starting with the uggghhh! of stage fright. Memorizing lines to deliver them with even a wince of dramatic believability is tough work. And then there's the choreography : I never could execute that bloody step-ball-change dance step they asked for. Add some songs to the mix that you're expected to belt out nearly on-key and without gibbling the lyrics and all the pieces are there : a full-fledged farrago of fall-on-your-face embarrassment in front of family and friends and complete strangers who'll never forget you. That's what stage fright is all about. And quite well-deserved, no question.

Why put yourself through all that potential misery you ask. Because there's a something about community theatre performances that are so genuine and real and homey and familiar and friendly and just plain fun, that's why.

Panto's particular pull : The British tradition of pantomime is family entertainment designed for the Christmas / New Year's season. It's a blend of music, dance, slapstick, robust audience participation -- cheering the heroes, booing the villains -- sing-along, local political satire, unfunny puns in extremis, and cross-dressing actors (always key to the revelry). All of this is based ever-so-loosely on a fairy tale or a mix of fairy tales just to give the show a hook and the kids down front some familiar stuff to relate to. 

On amateur stages, like the WRPC, panto's are also designed to encourage community participation across the board. And though White Rock and the Semiahmoo Peninsula are anything but a sleepy little community any longer, the feel of community is still alive and well and 100% a joy to behold at the 218-seat WRPC stage on Johnston Road in this year's Babes show.

A big part of WRPC panto's over the years has been the age-spread of the actors -- this year probably some 35 years between the youngest hoofers (Bo Peep's sheep are of grammar school age) and the leads, Mother Hubbard and her (his) nemesis the Demon. And all the ages in between from middle-schoolers to teens to young adults to moms-&-dads with families. Some two dozen of them.

Add in the production volunteers -- nineteen (19!) chief designers and coaches, twelve painters, seven props people, seven set builders -- and it's the 12 days of Christmas with a partridge in a pear tree to boot. Literally. Producer Fred Partridge. He not only had to run one of the follow-spots on opening night due to illness but served chocolate-coated cookies at Intermission while a lively local jazz ensemble entertained in the lobby. A scene straight out of a Stuart Maclean Vinyl Cafe piece or John Irving's novel In One Person for sure.

Production values : Babes is the perfect antidote to too much Netflix, too much Breaking Bad, too much screen-time of all sorts. The goal of rescuing the babes in the woods from torture and death at the hands of the Demon is accomplished, as noted, with a whole bunch of cheers and boos and bad jokes and songs. Lead Mother Hubbard was engagingly and robustly grabbed hold of by Brit ex-pat Bryce Mills. White Rock will not be his last whistle stop on stage for sure. His counterpart, Hunter Golden as Demon, has a great basso profundo he exploits with menace. Mackenzie Claus as Jill displays a strong and tuneful mezzo voice worth hearing again no question. None of their noteworthy efforts would have been pulled off with nearly the shine were it not for pianist Shelley Eckstein whose tenacity through months of rehearsals and the show's 22-show run is a marvel. Delightful town hall vaudeville plinks. Only the cigar smoke and ice cube clinks are missing.

Highest kudos of all have to go, however, to Set Design & Decoration chief Andrea Olund for a colourful & snappy arrangement of nursery rhyme buildings, perches and outcroppings, even a mini replica of the Semiahmoo First Nation legendary white rock down on the beach that gives the town its name. Equal huzzahs for Costume designer Pat McClean. Together the visual impact of their cleverness are central to making Babes a feel-good-all-over local show. Add to those highlights the fact that Director Lisa Pavilionis and Choreographer Michelle Reid wring every drop of sweat imaginable out of their troupe of 22 eager actors. True village virtues are on display here, no question.

Who gonna like : So grab the kids -- even the grumpy teens -- rev up Gramps's cane and Granny's shawl and hustle on down to the WRPC.  Babes is full-on family entertainment that falls into your lap and leaves you clapping cheerily. Take in a pre-show walk on the pier amidst the Festivus lights coupled with a bite at one of White Rock's countless waterfront restaurants while you're at it. Just do it! the ad says, because you can't go wrong for this kind of Christmas cheer. What you might have thought were lost and bygone days of innocent fun are still there for you just around the corner. 

Until December 27th. Phone 604.536.7535 for further particulars and tickets.


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