Photo: Courtesy of Matt Cassidy
British Pantos are not unknown to Ottawa audiences. Ross Petty and his super-slick group of dancers, singers, actor’s choreographers and writers of witty dialogue used to bring us their special versions of fairy tales to brighten our Christmas fun. These tales, reworked to fit the contemporary taste for parody, satire, and all kinds of naughty suggestions for the whole family that respected the particular conventions of the Panto, were regular features at the National Arts Centre. Then suddenly they stopped coming and we never understood why.
Now producers Matt and Sarah Cassidy have decided to bring back their version of the family panto to Ottawa and take up the lost tradition which Ross Petty and his collaborators introduced here many years ago. This company is made up of professionals who have been working in Toronto but many of them are originally from Ottawa. They have decided to make Ottawa their home as they work out their vision of what these new Pantos could be. Freezing is an example of this new musical narrative aimed at the whole family but drawn from childhood memories about living through cold Canadian (Ottawa) winters and revelling in the snow, the ice, hockey, and all the winter activities that made life so magical.
Moving away from the old stories that we inherited from the Brothers’ Grim, and other creators of such tales, producer Cassidy, writer/director Ken MacDougall, choreographer Jessica Vandenberg and composer Johnathan Evans have whipped up a theme of a more contemporary nature. Following in the path of recent discussions on climate change, and the competition between big business development and todays ecologically conscious progressive young people , they set up a story about a peaceful and fun-loving place called the Kingdom of Snowblow which looks remarkably like Ottawa. Into this lovely little town comes the wicked Hans – Will Lamond who is the spitting image of Justin Trudeau…but that was certainly an unfortunate coincidence.
Chad Connell as the dream boy Iceman with the lyrical voice was a striking presence as was Shelley Simester, the revolted Troll who brought out the comedy in all aspects of her performance. Jessica Vandenberg and Émile O’Brien were the pretty princesses who had pleasant voices but not enough confidence in their deliveries. But it was the dame, the beauty queen Gerda played with great naughty campy power, otherwise known as Constant Bernard who stole the show. This actor belongs in another realm of performance and certainly should be integrated into future shows. With lipstick smeared all over her face, her muscular proportions, her stylish moves, her sense of comedy that glowed as much as her glitzy attire, Constant is an actor/singer to be reckoned with.
The performance is backed up by three excellent musicians deftly conducted by Wendy Berkelaar on keyboard whom we also heard and saw at the recent production of Next to Normal at Centrepoint. Here again, Berkelaar is a perfectly competent musician and director even though the music of Freezing was not as expressive or as interesting as Tom Kitt’s score for Next to Normal because the Freezing score was almost all inspired by existing songs from a multitude of shows. However, four songs written by Johnathan Evans specifically for Freezing were particularly noteworthy, especially the sextet where the Iceman and five women blasted out their “Sister” solidarity song, vowing to overcome the evil plan of Hans the developer . That musical arrangement and the energy behind the delivery of that piece made it soar.
Seen from an adult’s perspective, some of the singers did not have nearly the performance energy one would expect from a professional show. The book seemed to go off on too many directions at once, often losing the narrative lines just to justify the presence of certain characters, like Beavertail whose stage work enchanted the children but whose dialogue was often overdone and seemed superfluous. There were a lot of contemporary and local references thrown in to titillate the adults about Ottawa politics and local Little Italy business. The video worked well but most of the text was not particularly original or even funny. What worked best was the stage business aimed at the children who were clearly seduced by the over the top performances , the interaction with the audience and all the gags that kept them glued to the different characters.
Lu-Anne Connell’s costumes were quite beautiful , practical , exquisitely kitschy and nicely fuzzy when appropriate. However, it is clear that the Cassidy group has not yet reached the professional level of Ross Petty’s work and lack of funds is not necessarily an obstacle. It’s the writing, the staging/choreography and unequal casting that needs special attention if they expect to attract large adult crowds as well as the small ones. It is a difficult menu to assemble of course but we admire their intentions and as it stands , the company is certainly heading in the right direction.
Next year let’s see what happens. In the meantime, this is a good Christmas show for children 3years and beyond. No doubt about it..
Freezing plays at the Gladstone theatre until January 3.
Freezing, written and directed by Ken MacDougall
Musical direction, Wendy Berkelaar
Original music by Jonathan Evans
Choreographer, Jessica Vandenberg.
Costume design Lu-Anne Connell
Produced by Sarah Cassidy and Matt Cassidy
Gerda Constant Bernard
Selfie Declan Cassidy
Krisco Chad Connell
Princess Hanna Émilie O’Brien
Hans Will Lamond
Beavertail Cara Pantalone
Rubble Shelley Simester
Princess Adèle Jessica Vandenberg.