Ross Petty’s Panto Promises Pinocchio, Pigs, and a Practical Princess in ‘Snow White’

If you’re looking for a sure-fire way to tell what time of year it is (i.e. if you’ve somehow sailed through malls and supermarkets with your ears unscathed by early November Christmas carols) then look no further than Ross Petty Productions’ annual pantomime. When the posters begin to pop up for Petty’s sweetly satirical brand of fractured fairy tales, it’s obvious beyond any hint of snow that the holidays are upon us.

Seventeen years in the running, Ross Petty’s panto has become an annual tradition for many, but this is isn’t even the first time Snow White has been done. Not to mention that this year, there’s been enough mirror-mirroring of the Snow White saga on the big screen to have one looking for a prince to dutifully whisk you away from it all!

But don’t worry, this isn’t your grandma’s – or granddaughter’s – Snow White. In true Ross Petty fashion, this annual pantomime promises a refreshingly different take on a story that, going by the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales 200th anniversary this year, is at least two centuries old.

How different? James-Bond-007-featuring different. Don-Cherry-suit-wearing-little-pig different. Pinocchio and Red Riding Hood even make appearances, that’s how different. So, this is one fractured fairy tale you won’t want to miss.

Reid Janisse Photo by Gesilayefa Azorbo

Cadence had a chance to speak to two members of the cast of this year’s show, Billy Lake and Reid Janisse, during a press day at The Elgin Winter Garden Theatre recently.

Both Lake, a Shaw Festival regular who plays Pinocchio, and The Second City’s Janisse, who plays Ham (the smartest of the Three Little Pigs) are making their Ross Petty Productions debut with this year’s panto. Both actors are also Toronto-based, and they each agree that it is the perfect production to participate in over the holidays.

“A lot of actors love this contract,” Janisse says. “Because most theatre actors spend most of their time outside of the city, because there are precious few contracts inside the city where you can work here and make a living and stay in Toronto. So those are gold.”

The feeling is the same with Lake.

“If I was to call anyplace home base it would be Toronto, it’s great to be here for the holidays, to be around friends and family,” he says, smiling animatedly as he sits cross-legged on one of the padded benches in the Elgin Theatre’s lower lobby.

The Newfoundland native first came to Toronto for theatre school at Sheridan College, and he’s worked in theatres from BC to Barrie, and Saskatchewan to Newfoundland, including spending the past six seasons in Niagara-On-The-Lake as a member of Shaw Festival. But he considers Toronto as close to home as he can get without hopping a plane back to Newfoundland – which he plans to do anyway, once Snow White wraps up in January.

“As per mom’s orders,” he adds with a chuckle.

Billy Lake Photo by Gesilayefa Azorbo

This isn’t the only reason they both enjoy being a part of the production, however. For Lake, it meant becoming a part of what he considers a cherished institution.

“It’s a big family tradition, I’ve been coming for the past couple of years…I remember going here as a class trip, one year in theatre school, and it’s so much fun, and I had a lot of friends doing it last year,” he adds. “I would sort of hang out with them afterwards and hear all the stories. It just seemed like an incredible way to spend the winter. And so when the opportunity came up to audition I jumped at it!”

For Janisse, coming on board was just a matter of time given that the panto’s style of blending family-friendly fare with a hint of adult satire has always caught his attention. A writer as well as an actor, he’s worked with The Second City’s sketch and improv kids’ shows, as well as comedy science shows for Mad Science Productions, and he says his career was pretty much made on the back of this style of theatre.

He describes his character, Ham (aka, the pig who built his house out of bricks), as, “Don Cherry crossed with Pumbaa from The Lion King. Two of them kind of mashed together, like a hit of Don Cherry, then you also find the kind of playful energy that you’d find in a Pumbaa-type character.”

Janisse says he also appreciated the inclusive nature of the show, and the openness of director Tracy Flye to performers’ input.

“The whole cast, from the read-through, right through rehearsals, anytime somebody has an idea to punch up a joke, we’ll do it,” he says. “Tracy Flye, the director, has been really cool letting us do that. Because a lot of time as an actor, you work with the text provided and just go from there, but Tracy’s very open to letting us rewrite things.”

He adds that his prior theatre experience allows him to look for ways to get kids engaged, but also have adults laughing and enjoying themselves, too.

“I’ve been working for years at this company called Mad Science Productions, doing shows – kind of comedy science shows – for huge audiences all around North America, finding ways to make it fun and engaging for kids, but also funny for adults, and interesting for adults,” he says. He adds that the bigger challenge comedically is actually appealing to kids, rather than adults.

“Kids are an audience where they’re not going to be polite. If they like something they’ll laugh and they’ll clap, if they don’t, they just won’t do anything, they’ll be bored and you know, start talking and want to leave. They could be the best (audience) or they could be the worst!”

As it turns out, they’ve had a chance to find out which one they’re facing, as Snow White began doing preview shows on November 23, ahead of the official premiere on November 30.

“It’s been really great to see,” says Lake.

“I mean we were working for a long time in the rehearsal hall, so all the jokes we were doing, we were kind of getting used to them, they weren’t funny anymore, and you start to sort of question, Oh, is this going to be funny anymore? Is this still going to work? And as soon as you get it in front of an audience, especially the kids, it all sort of falls into place. You know, people are laughing at stuff, you’re like, Oh, is that funny? I didn’t realize that! Or, not laughing at stuff and you’re like, Ugh, I thought for sure that was going to work, we’ll have to change it!”  He laughs.

“So, you know, that’s the great thing about a preview period, is that you can kind of test things out, try new jokes. Of course yesterday we were all wracking our brains as to how we could work Rob Ford things, Rob Ford jokes into the show, so…![breaks off laughing] And that’s the great thing too, about the panto; it’s current, modern references, and contemporary songs with kind of an old, classic, archetypical story.”

Janisse agrees about how the theatre touches on the pulse of what’s current.

“I work at The Second City now, as well, and I was in the middle of rehearsing two shows on Monday back to back, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. In the morning show, we were in the middle of working on Rob Ford jokes, when I got a text from somebody saying he’d just been kicked out of office, so all of a sudden you’re like, Oh man, we have to go in and do some rewrites, because if something’s that hot, that current, if you don’t address it, this kind of means you don’t have your pulse on what’s going on.”

He also says that the fact that the pantomime takes as its foundation a story that most people will already know allows for a lot of creative tinkering that lets them keep the story fresh.

“I think now, the farther you go with it, the more fun it is, because I mean, yeah, we are completely taking the story to new levels with 007, and Pinocchio, and Red Riding Hood, and Ham. I play the smart pig, who built his house out of bricks, and I’m very much a Don Cherry-type, and Pinocchio is very much my Ron McLean. We very much have a double-dynamic there, where the two of us play off each other.”

With this being the first pantomime for both Lake and Janisse, we had to ask which fairy tale character they would each like to be in real life.

” I don’t know, part of me has always been drawn to the sort of fairy tale villains,” says Lake with a laugh. “I just always like how theatrical and sort of fabulous and over the top they are. I mean…can I say Ursula the Sea Witch? I think I would be a sort of ridiculous Ursula the Sea Witch, but I don’t know, I think I could rock some tentacles, make that happen!”

” You know what, I’m going to go with the genie from Aladdin,” Janisse says. ” I mean, if I’m playing him in a show, or if I’m just a real genie, yeah, for sure. Because, I mean, you’re a genie. Especially at the end when he gets his freedom, you can do whatever you want with it! Unlimited wishes, you get all this power, you get to be funny…Yes. Genie from Aladdin, that’s my final answer.”

Coming back to the show, one begins to wonder, with the proliferation of Snow White stories this year, why people should be interested in this one.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this year is Snow White, on the heels of sort of Snow White films,” says Lake. “I think there are maybe one or two references to the movie, but other than that it’s a completely different Snow White, she’s certainly not the typical Disney version, I don’t quite think she’s either of the other two versions from this year, either. Melissa (O’Neill, who plays the title role) is sort of her own character – strong, and independent, and she’s got her dreams, and she wants to break free from the wicked stepmother and get out there… and become a veterinarian, obviously. Logic.”

But the biggest reason to come out to the show, they both agree, is that it’s just such darn good fun.

“On top of 007 you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood in there,” says Lake. “Pinocchio, who I play, Ham, who’s one of the three little pigs, and we’ve kind of all banded together to stop the evil queen, and of course we need all the help we can get, and it’s the 50th anniversary of James Bond so he just happens to be around in the Enchanted Forest and willing to lend a hand! Jack and the Beanstalk is in there, so…yeah. It’s a full stage, it’s great! I think of it as sort of ‘Snow White Meets the Avengers’!”

Now, that’s a sight worth seeing.

Be sure to check out the pantomime of the year at the Elgin Winter Garden Theatre starting November 30, and running through the holidays till January 5, 2013.

For tickets and show information, check on the website here.