Peter Pan, that world-renowned sprite of a character, is essentially immortal by virtue of remaining perpetually a boy.
As a literary figure created by novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie, “Peter Pan” is equally durable, having appeared in countless stage and screen adaptations.
So why not build an American panto-style Christmas show around the 1904 character?
That was the idea of the Lythgoe family, Brits who settled in Southern California, then started bringing a taste of England to local stages in the form of the panto, a style of entertainment that originated in the Elizabethan era and whose American counterparts have been around since 1876.
“Panto” is short for “pantomime,” but don’t expect silent actors with their faces painted white. Panto in the British form is fowdy, silly fun that is family friendly – a tradition that Lythgoe Family Productions has taken care to preserve.
The family has been creating original shows and producing them in Southern California each Christmastime since 2010 – and at Laguna Playhouse since 2015. The Laguna “Peter Pan” is directed by BT McNicholl, choreographed by Kitty McNamee and music-directed by Doug Peck.
“Peter Pan and Tinker Bell: A Pirates’ Christmas” follows a formula well-established in previous Lythgoe shows, a combination of facets from British panto and more familiar American elements designed to create something that appeals to children but that entertains family members of all ages.
Each panto is built around a well-known fairy-tale, fable, nursery rhyme or children’s book character. The Lythgoe shows feature at least one TV or movie celebrity, contain songs based on contemporary pop music today’s kids will recognize and enjoy, and are peppered with jokey local references to give adult audience members something to hook into and enjoy – so those who see this “Peter Pan” can expect plenty of humorous references to Orange County people and places.
Past shows have been yuletide treatments of “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” Guest celebs like Neil Patrick Harris, Marina Sirtis, Joely Fisher, Charlene Tilton and Fred Willard get the plum role of the villain.
This time around it’s John O’Hurley of “Seinfeld” and “Spamalot” in the role of Captain Hook.
The musical playlist for “Peter Pan” includes “Uptown Funk,” Pitbull’s “Time of Our Lives,” “Live While We’re Young” (One Direction) and, for the parents (and grandparents) of kids in the audience, “Nature Boy” (Nat King Cole), The Village People’s “In the Navy,” The Carpenters’ “Close To You,” Aretha Franklin’s “Think” and Faith Hill’s “There You’ll Be.”
As Hook, O’Hurley gets the 1974 pop song “Hooked On a Feeling” (heh-heh). Familiar music like the theme from the 1978 blockbuster “Superman” is on hand along with “Santa Claus Is Coming” as a nod to the holidays.
Audience interaction is another defining aspect of the Lythgoe panto shows. Cast members talk directly to the audience, and have fun doing so. Audiences will be encouraged to cheer for Peter, Wendy and Tinker Bell, boo Captain Hook and sing along to the songs.
The show is written by Kris Lythgoe, whose parents, Nigel and Bonnie, are British show-biz veterans and who created Lythgoe Family Panto in 2010. The first handful of LFP shows were staged in Pasadena before the company unveiled its first Orange County production at Laguna Playhouse in 2015.
“Peter Pan” is LFP’s fifth O.C. show. It’s also the first time Lythgoe’s “Peter Pan” is being seen in Orange County. That fact required a rewrite of Kris Lythgoe’s existing adaptation to incorporate jokey references to local people and places.
Kris Lythgoe calls “Peter Pan” “the ultimate fairy tale. When written, Barrie must have thought about fairies for girls and pirates for boys, mermaids and flying. Then to couple that with the thought of never growing up or getting old. We have fun with all the elements that Barrie originally wrote, but with a twist.”
How much similarity to Barrie’s original? “The backbone of the story is the same as we know and love – we just have a lot more fun with it!”
The Lythgoe version has no similarities with the 1953 Disney animated film with which most audiences are familiar. “As a writer, I always look at the source material and not rewrites,” explains Kris Lythgoe.
How about tying this one in with Christmas? “I think a story like ‘Peter Pan’ is synonymous with Christmas because both speak to families. Christmastime you celebrate with family, whether they are friends who have become family. ‘Peter Pan’ is the perfect family fairy tale that really has something for everyone.”
Were there any facets of the original that just didn’t mesh with the Christmas theme? “The mermaids! If Barrie were alive today I would love to ask him about the thought behind mermaids. I imagine at the time it was written every child wanted to be a mermaid. But for me, mermaids and Christmas didn’t make sense.”
Whereas past shows have emphasized slapstick humor, Lythgoe said this one minimizes that aspect: “With ‘Peter Pan,’ the plot is so rich we don’t need to.”
Along the lines of traditional British panto, this “Pan” is “interactive, with lots of audience participation. Who better to be able to boo as loud as you want than Captain Hook – especially a Captain Hook played by ‘Seinfeld’s’ John O’Hurley?”
Lythgoe said that as far as adapting “Peter Pan” for the sake of a panto American audiences can relate to, “I think that Barrie wrote such a family-oriented show that I didn’t need to adapt as much as some of the others.”
His version of the story turns the pirates surrounding Captain Hook into spoofs of pop stars like Elvis, Michael Jackson and John Lennon. “Elvis mumbles, Michael Jackson dances and Lennon just speaks Beatles lyrics throughout.”
Barrie, he said, “didn’t focus on” the pirates much” – but American audiences have been primed for plenty of pirate fun by the hit “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].