Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Of Carols and Pantos Past

I’m of an age when I’ve begun reminiscing more often and more loudly, especially at Christmas. Fortunately, my students seldom hear my “remember whens,” and my niece only rolls her eyes and makes a snarky comment now and again. That doesn’t keep me from flipping through my mental scrapbook this holiday season, especially when I read reviews about panto or Christmas plays.

Today I came across two reviews of Aladdin, the megaproduction—in 3D!—playing the SECC auditorium. One is highly positive (The Herald review), one not so much (The List review). Surprisingly, both reviewers paint an accurate picture of panto at its most enjoyable, if not its finest.

One reviewer praises the fun quotient—kids squealing, parents laughing, everyone getting in on the absurdity. Another faults lackluster special effects and a crashed computer—certainly nothing to look forward to—and concludes with reserved praise for the “valiantly adlibbing” star who, nonetheless, probably wished that the CGI Genie could grant a do-over.

Even without the fact that in this production Aladdin is played by effervescent John Barrowman, so the crowd undoubtedly has a great time—or that, if someone has to adlib during a live show, the audience and producers are lucky to have Barrowman on stage—imperfection is at least half the fun of panto. Granted, as an American, my experience with this traditional holiday entertainment is rather limited, but even with that acknowledged limitation, I wish I could see Aladdin—or any one of a number of other pantos currently playing in the U.K. and Canada.

I look forward to the “what if” factor of live entertainment. Who knows what might happen during any show? I might see the performance of a lifetime, or technology might fail and lead to some glorious improv. Sure, a 3D Genie might be fun, but isn’t it just as thrilling when a glitch forces the show to take a different turn? (Performers and producers may fervently hope) this misfire may only happen once, but the resulting uniqueness of that performance can make it most memorable (or even more entertaining) because it’s spontaneous.

In the ‘90s, I took some family and friends to Toronto for two live performances that, by critics’ standards, probably suffered the “crapness” factor discussed in today’s panto review, but that’s not what I remember about them. At that time Camilla Scott starred in Due South, one of my favorite TV series, so I suggested we see her in the holiday panto, Jack and the Beanstalk. The show was OK, but I remember it because we laughed aloud and reverted to being children for a few hours. We interacted with each other and the performers—something not normally encouraged within the confines of a magnificently venerable theatre. Panto brought out the kid in us in a perfectly acceptable way, and it would have been Scrooge-ish to point out Giant flaws.

Panto is one of the last bastions of public silliness and absurd storytelling that is more fun than it should logically be. It allows performers to be most outrageous and audiences to get in on the act. It's communal role playing at its most liberating, if not most dignified. I miss it—perhaps because I often have trouble letting go and laughing out loud. Panto, like the celebration of Christmas, can be magical and memorable for reasons far beyond production values.

My other memory from that trip is a frozen tableau of what Christmas used to be, and it helped me to understand my mother’s memories of Depression-era holidays. Mom and I attended a performance of the Huron Carole. (If you’re not familiar with it, for many years actor/singer Tom Jackson brought together Canadian artists for a national musical tour, with all proceeds going to charity.) As the event grew bigger and more popular each year, the venue improved. However, when we first saw it, the performance was held in an old building away from the glitzy theatre district. On that winter evening, the heat failed, and the balcony was cold enough for us to wear coats and gloves all evening. Fortunately, our hands warmed from applauding hours of song, jokes—as with panto, focused on local celebrities or politicians, and finally, the Huron Carole.

Even better, on the street, during a delay while someone worked on the theatre's furnace, we joined the Salvation Army in singing carols. The band and choir began, but before long, the waiting audience sang along, always loudly, sometimes on key. Standing on a snowy street corner in Toronto, singing carols with dozens of strangers—that’s a memory to keep.

The local food bank was the recipient of that evening’s proceeds, and everyone was encouraged not just to donate cash, but to bring canned food. Building a tin mountain and tossing coins in the kettle reminded my mother of Christmases long ago and far away. Technically, this wasn’t a perfect evening. Temps were cold outside and in, the concert was delayed, and the venue wasn’t posh, but it was one of our best mother-daughter outings ever.

I’ve often said that my happiest moments have been either in a theatre or a bookshop, so it’s fitting that some of my favorite memories of public Christmas celebrations involve theatres and the joy of live performance. Sure, it’s fantastic when everything works as it should and the quality of the production merits the price of a ticket, but sometimes it’s even more special when the heat goes out, the Giant misses his mark, or the Genie decides to stay home.

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