Three years in, audiences at the Pasadena Playhouse still haven’t quite gotten the hang of the panto (as in “pantomime”), the interactive, 100 year-old theatrical tradition that sweeps the United Kingdom during the holidays. Pitched as an alternative to the perennial Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers, at least on this side of the pond, the contemporary panto features classic fairy tales mashed up with topical jokes, Billboard pop songs and a cast of recognizable faces. The Playhouse’s third outing, Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight, directed by Bonnie Lythgoe and written by her son Kris Lythgoe, follows previous adaptations of Aladdin and Snow White and features Olivia Holt of the Disney Channel’s I Didn’t Do It as Aurora and Lucy Lawless, former badass warrior princess Xena, as the evil fairy.
The form’s success depends on plenty of unselfconscious booing, cheering and shouting from the tykes in the audience, egged on by their parents. This well-behaved audience occasionally abdicated its duties and fell politely quiet, forcing the cast to pretend as though they’d received the groundswell response they expected. But despite some necessary coaching, both cast and audience appeared to be having a rip-roaring time by the end.
In this iteration, Aurora (Holt), princess of Pasadena, still lives with her parents right up to her 18th birthday, when she’s due to wed a prince (Garrett Clayton of Teen Beach Movie) from the neighboring kingdom of Alhambra. Escaping the chaperonage of the faithful Nanny Tickle (David Engel) and vertically challenged guardsman Silly Billy (Ben Giroux), she escapes to the woods, meets a man, they dance…cue American Authors’ “Best Day of My Life.”
A Disney star playing a Disney princess with a hint of Jennifer Lawrence throatiness, Holt has the act down, keeping her hands lodged permanently at waist height, as if they floated on a supportive current of air. As her baby-faced love interest, Clayton is equal parts entitled bravado and winking smarminess. Giroux and Engel, a veteran of Broadway's La Cage Aux Folles, capture the kids with skillful physical humor, while Lawless has more fun than anyone else on stage, proving a delightfully vampy, punk rock Maleficent. The vocalists here are no slouches, with Tamyra Gray voicing two of the show’s standout numbers as the good fairy.
Despite predictable, family-friendly contours, this self-aware production wedges in plenty of jokes about Game of Thrones and Tinder for the adults, while providing a fresh take on a familiar tale — and valuable training in audience participation — for the kids.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. Molino Ave., Pasadena; through Jan. 4. (626) 356-7529; www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
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