My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

2 reviews by Drew Rowsome & Paul Bellini

Drag queens save Christmas again

by Drew Rowsome

Photos by Rachel McCaig

Cinderella: The Gags to Riches Family Musical is a delightful, wonderful hot mess. The classic fairy tale is modulated through the prism of a mash-up of Harry Potter and Wayne's World before veering off into uncharted territory. It is ridiculous, campy and whole lot of fun.

This is the 19th seasonal pantomime courtesy of Ross Petty and if it improves as much each year, the celebration-worthy 20th will be a eye-popping spectacular. The sets are stunning (though a pair of actual horses merely had to stroll onstage to upstage the complex and mesmerizing visual backgrounds), the numbers are tight and exuberant, and if the top-billed star, Petty, messes up his lines (deliberately?) the ribbing that follows is as entertaining as the script. There seems to have been a lot of "let's throw this against the wall and see what sticks" and the resulting barrage of topical references/jokes, requires the cast to think on their feet. Even when their feet are executing complicated choreography, they nail the seemingly improvised gags with feigned nonchalance.

Once again Dan Chameroy as Plumbum steals the show. This is grande dame drag queen as clown and Plumbum is a spinning dervish of hilarity. Aside from all the side gags - Plumbum's physicality is a klutzy wonder to behold - she has many of the best lines. Transgression, when spouted from her over-lipsticked mobile mouth (and Gene Simmons-sized tongue), is powerful stuff disguised as sarcastic asides. A gag about Bruce Jenner does more for trans rights than a dozen protest marches. And watching children embrace, there was a near ovation for every entrance and pratfall, a drag queen as a fairy godmother is a heartwarming Christmas gift.

Petty does not slack off. Happily back in drag after last year's experiment with same gender casting, Petty is robed in flamboyant fashion horrors and his Revolta Bulldoza earns all the boos and curses the audience can hurl at him. A joke about being a cougar actually induces a shiver of horror but digs at the Fords hit their barbed mark. The only complaint is that he doesn't have a big number to showcase his chops: when Bulldoza began to launch into a perverse riff on Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual," we craved a full rendition, not just a snippet - Petty is too generous to his co-stars.
Eddie Glen and Reid Janisse (Janisse is also credited as the writer) keep the action moving and are comic instigators of the best sort. There is such a comfort level between the performers that the insider jabs come across as actual jokes instead of theatre/show biz gossip. They also deserve credit for patching any plot holes - and there are a lot - by breaking the fourth wall and shrugging. Ugly stepsisters Bryn McAuley and Cleopatra Williams put the hopefully final nail in the coffin of the Kardashians, and make shallow seem as glamorous as possible when dressed in Cyndi Lauper sartorial rejects.

The nominal leads, Danielle Wade and Jeff Lillico, are both fine-voiced and attractive but talent is no match for the shenanigans of the drag queens. Lillico's big number as a pop star works wonderfully, he is a plausible object of desire. Vocally Lillico more than compensates for the blandness, in comparison to the madness surrounding him, of his character. Perhaps there is a subtext message for the kids about not depending on finding Prince Charming - the script goes out of its way to express girl power - which neatly dovetails with the shtick when three moppets are brought on stage and they turn out to be tiny feisty feminists in training.

Wade manages to make Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" a palatable song and for that alone deserves accolades. She makes a tear-in-the-eye entrance to the ball and milks laughs out of the glass, not ruby, slipper (the slipper, in an inspired comic moment, is thrown offstage where it shatters loudly before being forgotten as the plot takes another tangent).

The eight-strong chorus dazzles with quick changes and perpetual joy as they fling themselves into clever but complicated choreography. Special note, perhaps biased, goes to salt-and-pepper shaker, tall and lanky, Nicko Giannakos and David Light, who anchor the dancing by book-ending each number. They also get little comic bits with Giannakos' mime being a particularly amusing amuse-bouche. It is a thankless job sweating in the considerable shadow of considerable divas but their work does not go unnoticed.

It may be Scrooge-like to carp, but the only problem with this family musical is the presence of children. The ill-behaved - I know they are supposed to boo Petty's every entrance but their profanity-laden outbursts were distracting and disturbing - brats behind us were only quiet during the sponsers' commercials which, this year, are integrated into the action. I can only hope that this exposure to theatre will inspire them to advance beyond the boob tube. And perhaps, a Christmas miracle, embrace their inner drag queen as a more socially acceptable way of gaining attention.

Some Ham for Christmas

by Paul Bellini

Photos by Rachel McCaig

Every year at this time, Ross Petty puts on one of his pantos at the Elgin Theatre, and every year, I get offered comps for opening night. It all started about five or six years ago when my buddy Scott Thompson was cast as Auntie Plum Bum, a juicy drag role. Scott hasn’t appeared in the panto since then, but that hasn’t stopped me from attending. At first, I used the tickets to impress my nephews. They were young and I thought they might enjoy the show, and they did, but both of them are now teenagers and therefore full of it. They wouldn’t be caught dead at a show called Cinderella. Their mom, my sister Christine, is another story. She loves the pantos. So when I told her I had tickets for opening night, she begged me to take her.

The show follows a successful formula. It is sort of based on a popular children’s property. Past editions have used The Little Mermaid and the Wizard of Oz as source material. But Petty, who usually plays the hammy villain role, often in drag, packs the shows with Top 40 hits, current events references (Rob Ford jokes yes, but also a witty Pride mention), and even hilarious videotaped commercials for the show’s major sponsors. He also has the good sense to cast talented comedians in the supporting roles and attractive young singers in the leads. (I also couldn’t help but note that the boys in the chorus were super cute as well.)

The shows utilize digital projections to set the stage, often with eye-popping effects. There is also plenty of breaking the fourth wall, as the actors often toss out witty asides to each other. The style is loose, and the whole show is lively and fun and super campy. At one point, they even dragged out a couple of Shetland ponies.
So is it a show just for kids? Certainly the kids in the audience seemed to love it, often shouting things out during the show. But my sister and I are in our 50s and were still captivated. Maybe the show appeals to the child in all of us. “Oh my God, I can hardly wait for the one next year,” said Christine as she drove off, a true fan. Ross Petty’s pantos never disappoint.

Cinderella: The Gags to Riches Family Musical continues until Sun, Jan 4 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St.