The Merry Family Musical

Directed by Jim Warren
starring Graham Abbey, Nora McLellan and Ross Petty
Elgin Theatre until January 5
189 Yonge Street/416-872-5555 OR

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

At the opening night performance of Robin Hood: the Merry Family Musical, I had just sat down when a very young child behind me asked her mother in a loud, uncensored burst of panic, "Where's the television?" This is a precise quote, I assure you, and not something fabricated to lend credence to the argument that our audiences are getting older and older and that generations are being lost to a culture unfamiliar with live performance. (The youngster was calmed, reassured and, based on her non-stop chatter and laughter for the more than two hours that followed, well entertained.) At about the same time that I overheard this cri de coeur, I quickly read my programme and discovered that there was not a single credit for writing of musical or non-musical material, though 'script adaptation' is assigned to Malcolm Heenman without reference to the script from which he adapted the work. (My own crise was averted by the dimming houselights.)

The Christmas pantomime, a staple of many British towns, has been establishing itself here in Toronto since1996, thanks to Ross Petty Productions, as one of those annual events we cannot afford to miss. As this is my first experience with the Toronto brand of panto, it follows that I won't be drawing comparisons between then and now. So, let's just move ahead to here and now, running at the Elgin Theatre until January 5.

The panto is a foolish form, a hybrid that demands robust performances from actors who can leave their inhibitions far from the stage on which they cavort. The panto insists upon audience interaction as much, and as loud, as actors can possibly invite. To that end, the opening night audience responded as though they had been carefully coached, which they had not. (And sitting in the upper reaches myself, I was among the genuine ticket holders and not left to sift between claque and kid.)

The story is of no conceivable interest to anyone, actor or audience member. The villain (Sheriff of Nottingham) plagues the hero (Robin Hood). In the end, the good guy wins. On the way to the victory, a journey that takes an unnecessarily long time, there is an uneasy blend of humour that gets laughs (deserved) and humour that doesn't (deserved) and a bunch of songs that give new meaning to the word 'eclectic'. (Those Were the Days and When I Fall in Love top my list of songs that should have been left outside the stage door. They are quickly followed by a few mediocre songs I had never heard before and will possibly never hear again. As there is no list of musical numbers, old or new, one can assume that the perpetrators were themselves rather cavalier/reckless [you choose] with their selection.)

The performances range from bold to bland, with Ross Petty, as villain, manipulating the audience with tremendous ease. Nora McLellan hurls herself at every line and action, overpowering her scenes -- and I'm not telling her anything she doesn't already know -- and some of her colleagues. Graham Abbey is the hero. He has a pleasant manner, unforced and undemanding, and his singing is much the same, with the exception of some consistent pitch problems. Simon Bradbury brings invention and surprise to a stage where such ingredients appear to be unavailable and Sara Topham and Amy Walsh supply female goodness -- Walsh has the truest singing voice in the company, aside from Petty who assigns himself surprisingly little vocal opportunity -- though they are relegated to roles that seem to disappear before your very eyes. Rex Harrington˝ Principal Dancer with the National Ballet of Canada for many seasons, makes his musical theatre debut with Robin Hood. Dancing the role of Forest Wizard, Harrington needs no comment from me about his dancing. He sings and delivers dialogue with energy and enthusiasm that suggests that he is a very good sport.

Jim Warren directs the affair, a job that one suspects requires much discipline in negotiating what can and what cannot be included in this grab-bag of shtick. Whether or not the several break-ups on stage are legitimate -- those endearing moments when the leading actors have no choice but to laugh and laugh and laugh at a mistake or two that are, well, either planted or spontaneous -- all else seemed to be taken care of. The band, under David Warrack's direction, sounded as though another rehearsal or two would be useful, but by the second act they, too, were well into the 'what the hell' spirit so heartily endorsed by everyone else.

A caveat: CIBC, the presenting sponsor, could not resist commercial time at the expense of good taste. In the panto's closing scene about a half dozen boys and girls are selected from the orchestra seats to go on stage to sing with two of the actors. The moment is sweet, if quite expendable since the entire audience has just been exhorted to stand and sing and do various actions to the same song for three successive choruses. Following their participation the kids are rewarded with stuffed animals -- and the actor saddled with the announcement that these are made possible by the banking giant speaks her speech just fine. Why, I wondered then and wonder still, could the corporate sponsor not have selected a charity for gift giving of this kind? I have no doubt whatever that CIBC donates much to many, and I have no doubt that the kids selected (and rewarded) at each performance are thrilled to bits with their stuffed trophies. Would I be so heartless if I were down among the high priced seats with a child who was plucked and thereafter bestowed with such largesse? Would I, were I a child, commit an act of heresy by shouting, "No, this belongs to one less fortunate than myself!" or would I be quite content to bundle the booty and whisk it home? Hard to say, but not hard to say that there must be a place where we can be spared product placement, corporate swaggering and a last minute reminder that the pure and foolish -- in this case, the panto -- is nothing but a mask for the purely ghoulish -- in this case, the panto's sponsor.

Is there a moral in all this? More to the point, is there a morality?

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