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'A Snow White Christmas' puts Southern California imprint on British theater tradition

The show at Pasadena Playhouse is based on the holiday family plays known as pantos.

December 11, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Ariana Grande and Curt Hansen in "A Snow White Christmas" at Pasadena Playhouse.
Ariana Grande and Curt Hansen in "A Snow White Christmas" at… (Philicia Endelman )

Kris Lythgoe had a problem that many a Los Angeles parent might relate to: Christmas was coming, and he wanted to take his young son, George, to a show the whole family could enjoy. Nothing seemed to fit.

But Lythgoe was equipped to do something about it, coming from a family with a certain expertise in organizing entertainment that appeals to a wide age spectrum.

His father, Nigel, is executive producer of "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance." His mother, Bonnie, is a veteran stage director and choreographer. Though no longer married to Nigel, Bonnie has been part of "So You Think You Can Dance," including a three-season stretch on the judging panel of the show's Australian edition.

TIMELINE: Snow White through the years

Kris Lythgoe, 33, knew that parents in his native Britain do not have the problem he faced in L.A., where he'd moved in 2003 to begin developing reality television shows of his own. In Britain, when Christmas is coming, the holiday plays known as pantos are everywhere. And now, because of Lythgoe, his mother, and his Michigan-raised fiancee, Becky Baeling (one of the producers), panto is here too.

After two Decembers at the 354-seat El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, Lythgoe Family Productions, the mother and son company formed to create what they have dubbed American panto, has brought its act to the 684-seat Pasadena Playhouse, where "A Snow White Christmas" opens Wednesday for 31 performances through Dec. 30. Charlene Tilton ("Dallas") plays the evil queen, emerging pop singer and Nickelodeon actress Ariana Grande is Snow White, and Neil Patrick Harris, a friend of Baeling and Kris Lythgoe, does a video turn as the queen's Magic Mirror.

Sheldon Epps, the Playhouse's artistic director, envisions panto as the major holiday season stage perennial the Los Angeles market never has had — potentially earning an annual box office bonanza while giving hordes of youngsters an early exposure to live theater. The Lythgoes' "Aladdin" already is on tap for next year.

Since the 1700s, the British have been flocking to the shows they call pantomimes — pantos for short. "Pantomime" merges two Greek words that translate as "mimic everything." Americans think of "pantomime" as a wordless performance, but British panto has nothing to do with keeping one's mouth shut.

The stories are comically told fairy tales and other children's standards — "Peter Pan," "Cinderella," "Robin Hood" and the like. Producers count on the yarns to enchant the kids, the sometimes risque double-entendres to engage their elders, and the magic tricks and music — usually renditions of hit pop songs repurposed to fit the stories — to go down well with everyone.

An essential element is what goes on in the audience, where a ticket comes with the expectation that its holder will lustily boo the villains, cheer the good guys, sing along with the music and otherwise express aloud one's reaction to the action.

According to the British newspaper the Sun, 10 million Britons — about one-sixth of the population — attend the approximately 1,000 panto productions each year. The bestselling panto on record, a production of "Aladdin" in Birmingham in 2007, raked in $3.5 million in five weeks.

But Kris, who wrote the Pasadena show, and Bonnie Lythgoe, who's directing it, say this is no exercise in Anglophilia. They are not bringing British panto to America. They are creating panto for Americans — Angelenos for now, although the master plan is to expand the Lythgoe holiday franchise to as many as a dozen U.S. cities over the next five years. Kris said the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City already is on board for 2013, and scouts from the New Victory Theater in New York City, which specializes in family-friendly shows, are expected to check out "Snow White" for a possible Lythgoe panto next Christmas.

American panto, says Kris, has one clear advantage over the British version: "Hands down, the major difference is the talent. The talent, as we all know, in this country is far superior when it comes to musical theater than in the U.K."

He said some transplanted Brits complained after the El Portal productions of "Cinderella" and "Snow White" that they weren't British enough. He told them basically to get over it — this is America.

"All these British eccentric things we kind of left out and concentrated on making the show funny," he said — an approach that he says has answered his father's initial doubts about whether American audiences would take to panto. One omitted U.K. custom for "Snow White" is cross-gender casting; Ian McKellen, for one, has played the stock panto figure known as the Dame.

The form's traditions are being honored in their broad strokes, if not their British particulars. Animal cast members are beloved in Britain; Pasadena's panto includes a miniature pony named Blitzen.

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