'Tis the season for holiday shows

Reviews of Chris, Mrs., Jack: A Beanstalk Panto and It's a Wonderful Life

'Tis the season for holiday shows
Danielle Wade and Liam Tobin share a Hallmark moment in Chris, Mrs. Photo by Max Power Photography

Ross Petty's annual panto packed up its colourful things last year, leaving a big gap in the city's holiday theatre schedule. Perhaps that explains why there are so many intriguing offerings onstage this season.

I've compiled a roundup of the big (and small) local holiday stage shows for the Toronto Star here. In a separate piece, I interviewed those clever, imaginative folks at Bad Hats Theatre, who are remounting their Dora Award-winning Alice in Wonderland at Soulpepper and recently debuted their new work, Narnia, at Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre for Young People.

In the meantime, here are reviews of a few recently opened shows that ought to get you in the holiday spirit.

Chris, Mrs. surprise

After watching a couple of underwhelming original commercial musicals premiere this year – see exhibits A and B – I honestly wasn't expecting much from Chris, Mrs. (Rating: ✭✭✭✭), a show by relative unknowns that was billing itself "a New Holiday Musical."

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭ or ✭ = didn't work for me

Well, call it a Christmas miracle. Real-life couple Katie Kerr and Matt Stodolak's inaugural show for their company Boldly Productions is a big, shiny, beautifully wrapped surprise with lots of heart.

Cynical ad exec and single dad Ben Chris (Liam Tobin) hates the holidays, but in order to get a promotion he's tasked with selling his family lodge run by his brother Charlie (Kale Penny).

And so he sets off with his influencer girlfriend Vicki (Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane), his filterless assistant Candace (Sarah Lynn Strange) and his three kids – nerdy teen Claire (AJ Bridel) and adorable twins Samantha (Addison Wagman) and Samuel (Lucien Duncan-Reid, the precocious child in Room) – to stay at the lodge over the holidays.

Up at the lodge, meanwhile, Charlie is busy tending to the guests and organizing the staff, who include Tim (Henry Firmston), who's always had a thing for Claire, and Holly (Danielle Wade), a spontaneous young woman who loves Christmas – she's back every year – but has a habit of leaving situations when things get complicated.

If this sounds like the plot of a Hallmark movie or one of its imitators – I forgot to mention the appearance of an engagement ring in Ben's luggage, which gets Vicki anticipating a proposal – you're absolutely right. The creators proudly lean into this cute concept, making this show different from most holiday stage offerings.

The characters are quickly set up and efficiently defined, even if book writer Kerr could smoothen out plot points involving the lodge sale, and perhaps trim an overly convoluted secondary triangle involving Claire, Tim and a figure skater named Cole (Andrew Broderick) with whom Claire's obsessed. The estrangement of the two brothers could also use developing.

But there's lots of cleverness and humour in the way the trip to the lodge is handled, with opposites Vicki and Candace getting stranded and helped by a charming silver fox named Nick (Mark Weatherley), who makes brief repeated, welcome visits throughout the show and always gets a laugh.

The songs are startlingly effective and imaginatively arranged. Ben's character is nicely established in his lively opener, "Just Another Jingle," and we get much-needed information about his late wife in his song "The Great Snowy Owl." Vicki belts out a vampy song that brings down the house (and the curtain) at the end of the first act, while Holly has a clever number that integrates well-known Christmas songs.

The performers, whose credits include Shaw, Stratford and Broadway, treat this light material with affection and seriousness. After her bold turn as Joanne in Stratford's Rent, Sinclair-Brisbane is emerging as a legitimate musical theatre star. And Strange takes what could be a thankless role – she first appears gaudily made up in a Christmas tree dress – and invests it with boundless joy and optimism.

Kerr directs like a pro, moving scenes along quickly and changing settings – there's even a scene at a skating rink! – with ease. Cory Sincennes's sets and costumes add to the festive feel. With its curved backdrop and ring of lights circling the stage, the set even makes it seem like everything's taking place within a magical snow globe.

Whether Chris, Mrs. becomes an annual or biennial event is unclear. But, like the tasty cookie tray at your next holiday gathering, it deserves repeat visits.

Chris, Mrs. continues at the Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge) until December 31. See info at chrismrs.com

Caitlin MacInnis and Shaquille Pottinger air their troubles in It's a Wonderful Life. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Wonderful adaptation

Even if you watch the Frank Capra movie every December, you'll still get a lot out of Young People's Theatre's It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (Rating: ✭✭✭✭).

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭ or ✭ = didn't work for me

As indicated in that subtitle, Joe Landry has adapted the story – about small-town dreamer George Bailey (Shaquille Pottinger) and his seemingly unsuccessful life – as a radio play.

This switch helps establish the 1940s setting, gives the ensemble of actors lots of opportunities to display their versatility (without necessitating quick costume or set changes), and also introduces audiences of all ages to the magic of sound effects, since the radio actors double as Foley artists.

Every physical action – doors opening, glass breaking, bells tinkling – is created by the performers.

Director Herbie Barnes has firm control over the material, and has added a few nice touches to the script: the studio is called WYPT, an in-joke about the theatre we're in. The period details of the studio and the performers (Shannon Lea Doyle designed sets and costumes) also feel just right.

And after evoking a world filled with dozens of characters – young, old, human and supernatural – you'll be surprised when only five actors take their bows at the end. The physically and verbally nimble Anand Rajaram stands out with his performances of, among others, a curmudgeonly Mr. Potter and a bar patron whose repeated spit takes get big laughs. (He also gives an excellent Jimmy Stewart impression.) Equally good is Cliff Saunders, whose contrasting Uncle Billy (George's uncle) and Clarence the Angel are a delight to watch.

I wish there were one more scene to establish George and his future wife Mary's early relationship. And the addition of a commercial jingle or two would have added to the period fun. And would actors in a radio studio actually carry around petals representing Zuzu's petals if no one were watching?

But that's quibbling. George's financial troubles feel all too relevant today. And the theme of how one person's life affects others is good to keep in mind at this time of year – and beyond.

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play continues at Young People's Theatre's Ada Slaight Stage until December 30. See info at youngpeoplestheatre.org

Christy Bruce (left) and Zoë O'Connor milk laughs in Jack: a Beanstalk Panto. Photo by Sam Moffatt.

Northan exposure

I remember one year character actor, Canadian Tire spokesperson and Second City alumnus Paul Constable played Plumbum in one of those above-mentioned Ross Petty pantos. He was superb in that role normally taken by Dan Chameroy, who I think was starring in Matilda at the time. But as Rebecca Northan proves in her wickedly funny Jack: A Beanstalk Panto (Rating: ✭✭✭✭) for Port Hope's Capitol Theatre, Constable really excels as a stage baddie.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭ or ✭ = didn't work for me

In Northan's imaginative version of the fairy tale, Jack (Zoe O'Connor) is a bright, optimistic Gen Z Port Hope barista, who's being exploited by the coffee shop owner Pearson (Constable), whose shady deals even include something involving the Greenbelt. When he abruptly fires her after she sells the cow for some magic beans, she climbs the stalk and finds a golden harp, a special hen that lays gold eggs and other variations on the familiar tale. She also finds an unfriendly giant (Constable, in platform shoes), who's not quite as dastardly as his earthbound doppleganger but still greets rounds of audience booing with some clever one-liners.

Unbeknownst to me, Port Hope's pantos have traditionally been performed in two versions: "family" ones for all-ages and a "naughty" version for adults. I saw the opening night of the latter, and it was filled with lots of sexual innuendo (the first scene, for instance, showed Jack waking up with a vibrator) as well as plenty of digs at neighbouring towns Pickering and Whitby. (Why not Toronto? Interesting.)

The cast is superb. O'Connor is a real find – as strong a singer as she is an actor; Christy Bruce (seen too infrequently on Toronto stages) creates a sympathetic servant who knows every detail about her impulsive boss; and Steve Ross nails the dual role of a down-to-earth cafe patron and a magical Harp who would be a wonderful host of drag queen library storytime sessions.

Kudos to the ensemble, who execute Hollywood Jade’s choreography with effortlessness, and designer Joyce Padua, whose costumes add to the whimsical fun.

Northan's had a fantastic year, having performed at the Shaw and Stratford festivals and written for B.C.'s Bard on the Beach. Let's hope she continues to sprout more creativity in 2024.

Jack: a Beanstalk Panto continues at the Capitol Theatre (20 Queen St, Port Hope) until December 23. See info at capitoltheatre.com