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Taking panto to La la land

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Scott Matthewman meets the family who are taking the traditional British pantomime to Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world

Despite a roster of American stars who have graced the pantomime boards in recent years – from Henry Winkler and Mickey Rooney to Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff – panto remains a firmly British endeavour. That is starting to change, though, as a traditional version of Cinderella has just finished a run at Los Angeles’ El Portal theatre.

The production was the brainchild of the Lythgoe family, the mother and son team of Bonnie Lythgoe (who also directed the show) and Kris. “It has been a dream of the entire Lythgoe family to introduce panto to Americans. They have two Christmas shows here, the Nutcracker and the Grinch,” says Bonnie. “And every kid hates going to the Nutcracker,” adds Kris.

The Lythgoes brought fellow Brit producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, whose 2010 producing credits include Wolfboy and Yes, Prime Minister, onto the team. “I said ‘yes’ immediately, as I had always wanted to do a panto,” he tells me, “and doing one in LA really appealed.”

The carousing, bawdy style of the British panto is something that is not immediately familiar to American audiences. “I briefed everyone involved to call it a panto, not a pantomime,” explains Kris. “At least with the word panto, the American audience would ask what it was for us to retort ‘a fun family Christmas show’. If they heard the word pantomime, they would have thought of Marcel Marceau – which is obviously not the right audience for us.

“We billed it as Cinderella – a Family Christmas Story, and that’s when tickets sales went crazy.”

The lack of familiarity helped shape the choice of panto to use, explains Haigh-Ellery. “Doing Cinderella as the first panto was important. In my opinion, it is the greatest panto of them all.

“It has those key elements – a great narrator for the story in Buttons, the Ugly Sisters are true pantomime villains, a handsome prince and a real rags-to-riches tale for our leading lady. If the LA audience was going to embrace panto, then we had our best chance with Cinderella – especially as the Disney animated film is so well known and loved.”

Panto may have been a new experience for American audiences, but it was new to the cast as well. For director Bonnie Lythgoe, she admits that it “made things terribly difficult for me. Comic timing was off quite a bit and actors wanted to ad lib more and more, as they had never experienced interacting with the audience.”

To help publicise the show, the Lythgoes enlisted the help of American Idol judge and songwriter Kara DioGuardi and actor Neil Patrick Harris to help with a public audition process for the title role. “We held auditions at various Westfield shopping centers across California,” explains Kris. “With Kara and Neil’s kind support we managed to get an audience watching the auditions of about 200-300. We obviously sold them all tickets to the show to see who finally won the search for Cinderella.”

The resulting search eventually found 17-year-old actress Veronica Dunne. “The talent here in LA is astounding,” says Bonnie, “but we were conscious that we did not want a ‘Broadway’ actress as such. We wanted someone who could seem vulnerable enough to be bullied, someone the kids could relate with, and who has natural singing and acting ability.”

“As the rounds progressed, and her confidence grew, she really started to stand out,” adds Haigh-Ellery. “For someone who’s just turned 17, her comic timing is impeccable. I’m sure she’s got a huge career ahead of her.”

For the North Hollywood venue of El Portal Theatre, first opened in 1926 and rebuilt ten years ago, Cinderella is one of the biggest shows in its history. The sets, rented from British panto company Qdos, dominated the stage. “We have every bar used in the theatre,” says Bonnie. “The lighting designer, Chris Wilcox, used every space available for lights, leaving no room at first for the snow flurry. We managed – but it was tough.”

The demand for the panto was unprecedented, says Kris. “The box office had to take on a new staff member to handle the calls,” he says. “We sold 1,200 tickets in a day on one website. They could not handle the calls and were not used to a non-theatre going ‘family’ audience.”

After the sell-out success of their 2010 venture, the team plans to expand next year, with two pantos. “We were going to just do one, A Snow White Christmas,” says Kris, “but the reviews of this year’s have been so good we are going to run it again. Snow White will be here in LA, and we’re in discussions with two venues for Cinderella – either Orange County or Salt Lake City.”

Bonnie Lythgoe expects to direct one of the shows again next year, and the team has asked Neil Patrick Harris to direct the other.

“Give us ten years,” says Haigh-Ellery, “and we’ll be opening in every state.” It may be hyperbole, but with the Lythgoe family’s enthusiasm, it’d be a fool who bet against them.

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