Friday, December 4, 2015

When Being Petty Makes You Big: Ross Petty's Final Boo

Ross Petty as Captain Hook in Peter Pan in Wonderland, Toronto's Elgin Theatre. (Photo: Racheal McCaig Photography)

Ross Petty, the Canadian actor who has helped make sick mean something awesome, takes his final bow as the creator of a Canadianized version of the traditional English Christmas pantomime he has produced for 20 years. This season's "fractured family musical" is Peter Pan in Wonderland and it's at Toronto's Elgin Theatre until Jan. 3. Tracey Flye directs Canadian playwright Chris Earle's pop culture-inspired script with a cast that includes panto stalwarts Dan Chameroy and Eddie Glen along with Jessica Holmes and Anthony MacPherson in the lead role. Petty plays the villain, as he does every year. Captain Hook will be his final stage role, he announced earlier in the summer, adding that he will continue to produce. Petty is nearing his 70th birthday and keeping up with the high-kicking dancers and fellow high-vamping actors is proving to be too much. I for one will miss him.

The first time I experienced his cracked sense of humour was in 1985, my rookie year as The Globe and Mail's dance critic and general arts writer. I was assigned to review his performance in Mother Goose at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre. He didn't own the panto then. It belonged to a British producer named Paul Elliott who in 1982 had cast Canadian ballerina Karen Kain as the genie in his production of Aladdin. Now artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Kain at the time was engaged to Petty, a native of Winnipeg known internationally for his star turns in Hal Prince's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and TV's long-running soap, All My Children. After they married the following year, Petty joined the cast.

Kain must have had gone back to dancing The Nutcracker the Christmas I came round to seeing the panto for the first time because I didn't mention her in my review. My attention was entirely on Petty. He played a wonderfully nasty dame in drag called Demon Vanity and was luridly made up. He shamelessly milked the crowd whose average age was 10. They showed him no mercy. Raised on the vigilante cartoons of Saturday morning television, the kids knew a baddie like him needed to be vanquished by the forces of good. They roundly booed him and shouted out to the heroine, Fairy Modesty, to watch her back.

I didn't have children of my own then. But I remember being moved to tears (which I didn't admit to in print) by the wacky Winnipegger's strong connection with the short people, the ones in booster seats, screaming their heads off in the audience. Egging them on, Petty encouraged the junior set to jeer loudly and generally act out their own thoughts and feelings while watching actors act. I might have been misty-eyed but I could see that the brilliance (and importance) of Petty's larger-than-life silliness lay in it being a form of interactive theatre that got young people hooked on the magic of the performing arts without them even realizing it was good for them. Petty was giving the kids vitamins to nurture their imaginations that he disguised as campy candy. I loved it then and I love it now. But other critics haven't always been as keen to embrace the pratfalls.

Dan Chameroy (left) and Anthony MacPherson in Peter Pan in Wonderland. (Photo: Racheal McCaig Photography)

When Petty took over the panto in 1996, he promptly Canadianized it with one-liners about local politicians and real-life Canadian personalities like wrestler Bret "Hitman" Hart and Ernie Coombs of CBC-TV's Mr. Dressup fame. That should have been a good thing, but high-minded theatre scribes tended to denigrate the innuendo-laden Can-Con, calling it, um, shallow. I remember reading one eye-roller in which the writer actually called Petty "jejune." Really?

The pantos are puerile. They are certainly not trying to be Shakespeare. They are slapstick. They peddle in sick jokes and double-entendres. They insult on purpose. Petty makes it obvious. His shows are overtly commercial (corporate backers of his $2-million production are acknowledged through funny infomercials inserted directly into the show) and tantalizingly politically incorrect (my wish is they would go further). That they continue to attract more than a month's worth of paying audiences is no small feat in a culture that has become increasingly and self-consciously uptight since Petty first started lampooning precious causes two decades ago. In that sense their garishness ought to be celebrated. They are a breath of artificial air.

I now have children of my own. Ever since I could get them to sit spellbound in the theatre I have been taking them, religiously, to hiss at Petty and blow air kisses at Plumbum or whoever the cross-dressing actor may be in a given year. Close to fourteen of those years have now passed and my kids have grown up on the panto. Thanks to Petty they are today eager theatregoers. They are also eager to see him. They were crushed when they learned that Petty is quitting the stage. My son said he could not imagine the panto without him, which is a testament to the impact Petty has had on the young. It ought to make him proud.

"You know, over the years I have been criticized," Petty once told told me. "But I say this: I am introducing children early in their lives to live theatre that hopefully will translate into a lifelong habit of theatre-going. If that's a mistake, then what can I say? Boo me.” And so it ends as it began. Petty gets the last laugh.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large

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