The Arts

Holiday Traditions, New and Old

Rick Young
Written by Rick Young

The holiday season is a time for sharing good times with family and friends. Why not share some great local live theatre?

This year you can choose between a holiday family classic, a British panto version of a well-known fairy tale, a re-telling of the Robin Hood legend, and a timeless American literary classic.

Susan Ferley, the Grand Theatre’s artistic director, says the Grand is always looking for a play that speaks across generations for its holiday offering. Securing the rights for A Christmas Story began with the insistence of her younger staff and a family conversation she overheard last December. “My executive assistant said ‘Susan, you have to realize that A Christmas Story is my generation’s A Christmas Carol,’ ” says Ferley. “The clincher came when I overheard a family in the lobby talking about watching A Christmas Story on TV later that night.”

Christmas Story graphicSince its release in movie theatres in 1983 A Christmas Story, Jean Shepherd’s tale of Ralphie Parker and his whacky dysfunctional family, has achieved cult status on television and is required viewing for many people come December.The story revolves around 9-year-old Ralphie’s yearning to find a Red Ryder BB gun under the family Christmas tree, in a setting that harkens back to pre-war Cleveland in the early 1940s. The problem is that everyone, including a department store Santa, keeps on telling him that he will “shoot his eye out” with the gun. In the process, familiar holiday situations like buying a Christmas tree, visiting Santa, and writing letters to Santa are presented.

While the basic story and main characters remain the same — Ralphie, the Old Man, Schwartz, Farkus, and others are all here — audience members can expect some noticeable differences in live stage presentation. “In the movie, the adult Ralphie provides an ongoing voice-over,” says Ferley. “In our stage version, he actually appears onstage lending his explanation to the action and he plays some minor roles in the play. The role of Esther Jane, one of the girls in Ralphie’s class is also given much more prominence.”

Returning to the Grand as the adult Ralphie is Steve Ross, the star of last year’s Shrek: The Musical. Londoner Rachel Jones plays Miss Shields, Ralphie’s teacher. Bill Layton has designed sets which capture the playfulness of the story, says Ferley.

A Christmas Story plays on the Grand Theatre’s Mainstage from November 24–December 30. www.grandtheatre.com

Jack and the BeanstalkPresenting a British pantomime during the holiday season has become a tradition for the Elgin Theatre Guild in St. Thomas, says Lesley Chapman, the Guild’s president.

A pantomime is a musical comedy designed for family entertainment. It was developed in England and is performed during the Christmas and New Year season. Modern pantomime includes songs, slapstick comedy and dancing, usually employing gender-crossing actors, and combining topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale, in this case, Jack and The Beanstalk.

“The big difference between traditional stage and panto productions is the active encouragement of audience participation for the latter,” says Chapman, who is co-directing this year’s panto with Ken Roberts. “The more the audience interacts with the action onstage the better and the more fun everyone has.” In fact, before each performance, Chapman actually “warms up” the audience by having members practice their booing and cheering. The cast is all local, with 40 people in the chorus, ranging from five to 84 years of age. Chapman says there are a few surprises in order, including a dancing cow.

“It’s all quite silly and a lot of fun,” says Chapman. “We usually have sell-outs, so people should get their tickets early.”

Jack and The Beanstalk plays at the Elgin Theatre Guild from December 3 to 13. www.elgintheatreguild.ca

Of Mice and MenFor readers seeking more adult-oriented theatre, By The Book Theatre is presenting John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in the McManus Studio Theatre at the Grand from November 24 to December 5. Director/producer Mark Killeen refers to Steinbeck’s classic tale of two drifters — George Milton (played by Andre Cormier) and his dim-witted companion Lennie Small (Rob Deman) — trying to survive in Depression-era America as a “time capsule.”

“One of my favourite lines from the Steinbeck novella was ‘Live off the fat of the land’ spoken by Lennie,” says Killeen. “The play opens up a whole lot of issues and themes including the dream of a better life, loneliness, how society deals with racism, people with disabilities, and why people couple.”

Killeen points out that Curley’s wife, played by Jesslyn Hodgson, plays a much more prominent role in the play than in the novella.

The production will be staged with lots of design and a minimalist artistic set with flats. “It will all work together to tell the story exactly as the words come off the page,” says Killeen. “It’s a wonderful piece of literature and we’re going to try to do it justice.”

Of Mice and Men is recommended for ages 14 plus. www.bythebooktheatre.com

Swordplay is serious business, even in pantomime!

Swordplay is serious business, even in pantomime!

London Community Players revisit the Robin Hood tale with The Trials of Robin Hood at the Palace Theatre. “This production is perfect, family-friendly theatre for the holidays,” says director Ceris Thomas. “It’s a silly version that had me laughing out loud as I read the script. Just this side of a panto, the script actively encourages audience participation.”

King Richard has returned to England and wants to know what has happened during his absence. Robin is put on trial, but what is unique about this production is that it is told through the points of view of different Robin Hoods — one of whom is the typical hero told by Robin himself, a second “lusty” Robin told by Maid Marion, and a third one who is depicted as an idiot as told by the Sheriff of Nottingham. The audience gets to decide which depiction of Robin Hood is the “true” one, says Thomas.

Original music for the production is being composed by London singer/songwriter Donna Creighton. “Donna is writing some catchy tunes that the audience can sing along with,” says Thomas. “It’s a big Christmas party suitable for families with children four and up,” says Thomas. “Don’t plan a party, bring everybody here!”

The Trials of Robin Hood plays from December 3 to 20 on the mainstage at the Palace Theatre. www.palacetheatre.ca

About the author

Rick Young

Rick Young

Rick Young, whose work has been published in local, regional and national print and online publications, was the Managing Editor, Publisher and founder of The Beat Magazine, an independent London arts magazine, from 2009 to 2014.