July 31, 2014

Who is the fairest producer of them all?

We tag along with Ross Petty as he gears up for his holiday panto

Ross Petty plays the Evil Queen in this season’s Snow White pantomime

Ross Petty plays the Evil Queen in this season’s Snow White pantomime

The only thing more comical than watching a grown man in drag play Snow White’s evil stepmother is watching that man rehearse the role in jeans and Reeboks.

It’s mid-morning on a rainy November Monday, and I’m sitting  in an upstairs studio at the Elgin Theatre watching the cast of Ross Petty’s annual holiday pantomime run through their lines for this year’s show — a mash-up of the classic Snow White fairy tale and a James Bond story.

At 66, Petty is both an actor in the show and its producer. He’s as sprightly and animated as a Christmas elf as he prances around the airy studio and belts out the Evil Queen’s first musical number (I’ve been sworn to secrecy, but let’s just say a certain pop group’s 2012 hit is ingrained in my memory).

While the actors do their thing, stage director Tracey Flye sits at a table with several other members of the production staff observing and taking notes on cues. Later today, she and Petty will meet in his dressing room to discuss some of the production notes they compile.

Flye is also filling in for some of the major set changes: “Then the thing flies out, and now we’re coming in to the next scene,” she calls to the actors, and Snow White (singer Melissa O’Neil — whom you’ll remember as the winner of Canadian Idol season three) steals the spotlight with her powerful voice and girl-next-door likeability — the perfect foil for Petty, who is known for encouraging boos from his young audience members.

Petty is now standing at a floor-to-ceiling window at the opposite side of the room reading his lines,  his back to actors “onstage.” They’ve been rehearsing for two and a half weeks already, but he’s having a difficult time keeping all his lines in order, balancing acting with the numerous responsibilities of a producer. When he waltzes back in to the scene, he has the script tucked into his waistband in case he needs a reminder. Eddie Glen, who has starred in Petty’s pantos for 10 years, jokes, “Wow, I can’t believe you remembered your lines!”

“I’ll get them down eventually,” Petty tells me with a wink when the cast breaks for lunch.

Most of the actors sit at another folding table just outside the studio, eating (I can’t help but  notice several of them munching on apples and laugh thinking of the Queen’s ploy to poison Snow White). Others check their phones, some playing back scenes they had recorded during the rehearsal.

For Petty, it’s a working lunch. I follow him to a makeshift office down the hall where he opens a laptop to view a quarter-page print ad for Snow White that his agency has just sent over for his review.

After going over the details, deciding to add an exclamation point after the tag line “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” we get to talking about how his pantomimes came to be an annual tradition.

Although he began his acting career in diverse roles, including stints in London’s West End and on Broadway, Petty now says, “I don’t see that I’ll ever wander off and do anything else.” In addition to being hilariously entertaining, he believes his musicals are an accessible way to introduce children to theatre, fostering a lifelong appreciation for the performing arts. He jokes that in that respect he’s in direct competition with his wife, Karen Kain, director of the National Ballet of Canada, which puts on The Nutcracker, another family holiday favourite, every year at the same time.

Besides tweaking marketing materials, a large part of Petty’s behind-the-scenes role is securing sponsors so that his shows can continue to take place each year. It’s a task that begins almost immediately after one show wraps for the season, so there’s very little downtime for him.

But today it’s mainly rehearsals that fill his time, and there are bugs to be worked out before the show opens in a few days. So for the afternoon, Petty and the cast are scheduled for “sitzprobe” — where the actors engage with the orchestra to work out the musical numbers, tweaking volume levels and pacing and making sure everyone is on the same page.

This time, I’m able to watch from the plush red seats of the Elgin, as the actors take the stage proper. Petty becomes even more vibrant in this atmosphere.
It’s a long, active day, and by the end of it, Petty admits, “I’m pretty wiped.” He’s looking forward to a relaxing evening: dinner with his wife, which he explains is a rare treat, and Monday Night Football.