Making Panto A Holiday Tradition in America

Shown during the launch of 'The Wonderful Winter of Oz' are, from left to right: Kris Lythgoe, Becky Lythgoe, Julietta Perez, and Darrell Brooke. - Photo by Kareem Cervantes
Shown during the launch of ‘The Wonderful Winter of Oz’ are, from left to right: Kris Lythgoe, Becky Lythgoe, Julietta Perez, and Darrell Brooke. – Courtesy photo / Kareem Cervantes

By May S. Ruiz

A decade ago there would have been no place to take in a Panto show in Southern California. But in 2010 the Lythgoes, known for their creativity and involvement in television hits ‘American Idol’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ changed all that when they mounted their first Panto production in North Hollywood.

In 2013 Lythgoe Family Panto took its Christmas show to the Pasadena Playhouse where it gained such a huge following that two years ago they had to move to a larger venue. This year will be their second time at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, their ninth in Southern California.

Kris and Becky Lythgoe, the couple behind the Panto company, together with Sheldon Epps, erstwhile Artistic Director of the Pasadena Playhouse and a Lythgoe Panto producer, launched this year’s ‘The Wonderful Winter of Oz’ at a party held recently at Bistro 45.

Enlightening us on why they want Panto to be an American tradition, Kris states, “I was raised in England, where there is a vehicle that introduces theater to kids called Panto. My childhood memories include seeing “The Grinch,’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and ‘The Nutcracker’ in Panto, which were so exciting for children because they were interactive. The shows had pop music and all the kids would be jumping up and down, swinging from the aisles and everything. It was a fun way to get them interested in theater. Now that I’ve moved here, I would like to be able to do the same thing for my children.”

Becky elaborates, “Kris came to America to start creating shows like ‘American Idol.’ In 2009, when our son was three years old and we wanted to see a show, he realized there was no affordable family show for parents to take their kids to, as his parents did in England.

“Kris’s mum used to direct Pantos and his dad used to write them back in England. So he and his mum said ‘Why don’t we do a Panto here?’ When he told me about his vision I knew exactly what to do with it. We started a company and produced ‘Cinderella,’ which we showed in North Hollywood.”

The reception for their first Panto was very warm, recalls Becky. “It was welcomed, really. There seemed to be a hunger for this kind of show where the entire family can have a great time. We have jokes and songs that kids, parents, and grandparents can appreciate and we have stars from several generations on our show.

“This is what made ‘American Idol’ popular as well – it’s multi-generational. I think American audiences revel in these kinds of shows. We’re loud people, we love to boo or clap, we love to share, we’re not shy with our opinions.”

Chimes in Kris, “I think there was a need for a family experience, especially at this time when people tend to watch YouTube by themselves. Panto brings together several generations – we might get something different from it, but we’re all watching the same show.

Epps recounts how he became involved, “They had some success in North Hollywood but they really wanted to be in a theater and producing organization, where they had more of a support system. At the same time, I had been looking for an entertainment show for the holidays that would appeal not only to children, but to families as well.

“I went to see ‘Snow White’ at El Portal and I really loved it; I thought it was great work. So I told them to come over to The Playhouse and see how it goes. We were lucky enough to have Ariana Grande for our first Playhouse show and it was a really big success. Becky is in charge of casting and she’s tenacious about going after people – making phone calls, knocking on doors, and calling on friends. That’s how she gets such a great cast which draws people to our shows.”

Becky says, “To get stars like Ariana Grande and Gordon Fisher as we had in the past, we needed to have a short run and a bigger venue. At the same time, as we’ve grown, we felt it was appropriate to partner with the city. We still collaborate with The Playhouse for an education outreach and development that is financed by the Pantos and we feel truly part of the community now.

“Pasadena is like New York to me in that it supports the Arts as much as it encourages family endeavors. So I felt this should be the heart of our work. Now we’ve expanded to Laguna, Nashville, and San Diego. As we take it nationally and extend it to television audiences, I would like to keep Pasadena as the epicenter of our ventures. We would like to make Panto a destination in Pasadena during the Christmas season much like the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game.”

Lesley Brander-Epps and Sheldon Epps. – Courtesy photo / Kareem Cervantes

Concurs Epps, “I remember the first time I mentioned Panto and people asked ‘Is that like Marcel Marceau?’ It has since become so hugely successful that it turned into a sort of Pasadena holiday tradition to the point where people say ‘We’re going to see the Panto. I don’t know what the show is, but I’m going to see it.’

“I’ve produced seven Pantos since it started at The Playhouse. Last year I directed my first Panto, ‘Beauty and the Beast – A Christmas Rose,’ our first at the Civic Auditorium, and I will be directing it again this holiday season when the show goes to Laguna Playhouse.

“What I love about this Panto is that the audience that saw it seven years ago have returned and they now have children who are coming to see it for the first time. It’s a perpetuating enterprise. That’s a far cry from when people thought of it as a mime show.”

It’s very rewarding to the Lythgoes to hear that audiences recognize their efforts at making Panto relatable. Kris states, “I’ve been here for 15 years, which is most of my adult life, so I understand American culture and the jokes. I make sure I take out the British-ness out of it to make it reflective of the American way of life.”

Asked to distinguish between English and American Panto, Kris replies, “People tell us British Panto is more boring than its American counterpart. Most of the fairytales have been adapted into Disney movies which are very popular so everyone is familiar with them. We also hire professional performers so the singing is far superior.”

Adds Becky, “We also use better props. For instance, if an actor refers to a horse, there will be an actual horse on stage or, at the very least, something resembling it. The quality of our productions is definitely higher.”

As the writer, Kris likewise has to keep coming up with interesting shows. He discloses, “While it’s getting harder and harder to decide what stories to adapt to Panto, there remain several fairy tales from The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. However, I’m not limiting myself to European fairy tales – ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a very American story.”

“‘The Wonderful Winter of Oz’ is a play on the Frank Capra classic, the ultimate American fairy tale,” describes Kris. “It follows the same story line, except that Dorothy gets swept away by a blizzard instead of a tornado, and it’s interactive. We have famous actors playing the various characters but our biggest ‘get’ is Kermit the Frog who’ll be our Wizard. And the reason we wanted him is because Emerald City is green.”

Interjects Becky, “And also because Kermit sings the ‘Rainbow Connection’ and the song Dorothy sings is ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ So there are those links.”

“This is the first time Kermit will be in Pasadena so we’re very excited,” states a giddy Kris. To which Becky inserts, “This will also mark the first time Kermit will be on stage to play a role other than himself.”

Not even Kermit is immune to the attractions of Panto. The Lythgoes have outdone themselves again.


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