Stage Door Review 2019

Jack and the BeansTalk

Dec 22, 2019

✭✭

written and directed by Rob Torr

Torrent Productions, Royal Canadian Legion Branch #001, 243 Coxwell Avenue, Toronto

December 20-29, 2019

Ed 1 and Ed 2: “Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit”

In only three years Torrent Productions’ annual pantos at the Royal Canadian Legion at Gerrard and Coxwell have established themselves a favourite family tradition. There’s a good reason why. Compared to the large-scale annual panto staged downtown, the Torrent pantos are far more intimate and feature vastly more audience participation which is supposed to be what pantos are all about. Torrent’s current production, Jack and the BeansTalk [sic], is no exception. The children in the audience and their accompanying adults are called on to react vocally so often that it seems as if we are contributing as much to the show as those on stage. And that is just as it should be.

As one might expect from a panto presented on a Legion stage, the show is low budget and low tech. Unlike the big panto downtown there are no LED screens, no projections, no computerized lighting and no clouds of dry ice. The wonderful thing is that to children big production values do not matter in the slightest. What the shows nominally for children at the Stratford and the Shaw Festivals have not yet realized is that it is adults who think big productions values are necessary, not kids.

Children, luckily, still have the gift of imagination and all they need is a good story to stimulate it and they can fill in the details. In doing so they are thus more mentally engaged in the story than if the production does all the filling in for them. Pantos take this process one step further by encouraging, or in the case of Torrent, actually depending on verbal audience participation to make its show complete.

This year’s Jack and the BeansTalk features the usual line-up of characters. Unlike the traditional fairy tale, the cloud-dwelling Giant (voiced with electronic alteration by none other than Cynthia Dale) is not a villain. Rather it is the Giant’s human servant Fleshcreep (Cyrus Lane), who is the Villain because he has been misrepresenting the Giant’s wishes to the human populace below by claiming the Giant demands exorbitant taxes from them. The Principal Boy is the hero Jack (Caulin Moore). His poverty-stricken mother is, of course, the Pantomime Dame, here named Dame Trot (Greg Campbell), who, as usual, is the main dispenser of the slightly off-colour jokes that only adults will understand.

The Principal Girl of the show is a feisty Jill (Teresa Tucci), who as tradition has it is the daughter of the wealthy old man figure, in this case the Squire (William Fisher), who also demands taxes from the people of the village. The show also follows tradition in having a Good Fairy (Jamie McRoberts), who is the villain’s main opponent and who speaks in rhymed couplets. This year Torrent features for the first time another standby of traditional panto, the Pantomime Cow, Daisy. Which two of the eight actors actually play Daisy at any one time is one of the amusing mysteries of the show.

In addition to all these long-established characters, writer Rob Torr has added not one but two purely comic figures, Ed 1 (Tim Funnell) and Ed 2 (Christopher Fulton), who are the main source of slapstick humour in the show as well as extended routines of verbal misunderstanding.

Torr has altered the familiar fairy-tale by changing the goose that the golden eggs into a chicken and putting it into the unlawful possession of the Squire. Torr’s version also does not involve several trips up and the magic beanstalk by Jack, but only one. Fleshcreep has taken Jill to the gIant. Jack goes up the beanstalk just once to rescue Jill and to defeat the Giant. And he is followed up the stalk by Dame Trot, the Squire and the two Eds.

The show is filled with clever staging ideas and hilarious set pieces. We wonder what will happen when the two Eds try to milk Daisy, but sure enough, she drops an already packaged pint carton of milk into the pail followed by a half-pint of condensed milk. The Eds follow this up with a whole stream of milk-related puns. When Jack has to climb the beanstalk, the middle set of curtains narrow to a painted strip of scenery behind the bean stalk. Jack mimes climbing as the scenery, obviously on two rollers moves the image downwards as Jack travels from land into the clouds. This is the old-fashioned, low-tech way to do this and it is so charming that it is far superior to any of the high-tech methods you could imagine.

The Good Fairy has lost her wings but, in a Peter Pan twist, if a dad in the audience shouts out that he believes in fairies, she will get them back. More than one dad was willing to shout this out and sure enough, after a sliver of curtain parted behind her, the Good Fairy turns around and received oohs and aahs for her new pair of wings. Once everyone is in the Giant’s castle the Giant’s huge hand slides out from stage right trying to grab Jill. As always happens in pantos the children in the audience are much more attentive than the adults on stage. When the hand starts to appear they children scream out and point in its direction, but the dim-witted adult actors look around too late and claim they see nothing. This happens three more times until the adults actually see the hand grab someone thus vindicating the attentiveness of children over the inattentiveness of adults.

The single most enjoyable scene of the entire show was an absolutely hilarious performance of a music hall comedy action song known in England as “If I Were Not Upon the Stage”. Here the words are “If I were not an actor on the stage” after which the singer sings what profession he or she would like to do accompanied by arm-movements illustrating the job. All eight members pf the cast were involved beginning with the Squire and added to one by one, acting out everything from being a ballerina to a window-washer.

What we don’t realize until the third performer joins this round is that one actor sinks down just as another swings his arm over her head. The intricate sequence of near-misses and unintentional tickling is so well imagined, presumably by choreographer Stephanie Graham, and so precisely performed that the audience literally was doubled over in laughter by the appearance of the fourth actor and the laughter only increased until a very clever finale involving the Villain. I could say that this scene alone was worth the price of admission but that would be unfair to all the other inventive scenes. For Michaela and Caroline, the two junior critics seated next to me, the two Eds were their favourite characters because they were so funny.

Torrent Productions has assembled a delightful cast with attractive voices although it is clear that the younger performers are more accustomed to singing with amplification than the older ones who know how to project. While everyone’s speech was perfectly clear, the singing of Tucci and McRoberts in her jazz voice tended to be obscured by the two-man band while that of Fulton and Campbell or McRoberts in her operatic voice were not. Caulin Moore, quite dashing as Jack, stands between the two extremes since he is able, when needed, to unleash the full power of his fine voice as in his main song “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”

The most memorable musical performance of the evening came from Villain Cyrus Lane singing a mean all-out rendition of “bad to the Bone” (1982) by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. The eclectic mix also included “Daisy Bell” (1892), “Holding Out for a Hero” (1984) and “You Can’t Hurry Love” (1966) which received several reprises to suit different situations. One should mention that since “beanstalk” is spelled “BeansTalk” in the title that the children’s song “Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit” enthusiastically led by the two Eds has been chosen for the group singalong. So practice blowing raspberries or, more precisely voiceless linguolabial trills, because you’ll need them.

The whole cast had perfected the panto style of acting in terms of addressing the children as equals and not talking down to them. Although the large panto downtown has been increasing its attempts at audience participation, it still can’t match the nearly constant level that the Torrent production demands. Not only does the entrance of the Villain receive boos, but the entrance of Jack is meant to receive “Hooray!” and the entrance of Dame Trot the awkward “What what Dame Trot what what”. The actors constantly ask the children for advice about what to do or where people have gone. In one situation, unique in my decades of panto-going, the Villain asks the children where the magic chicken has gone and the children, rather than telling the truth universally decided to shout out lies in order to deceive him.

Though on opening night the show was still a bit rough around the edges and Act 1 could have used some trimming, the audience was in high spirits throughout with some kids even standing up to express their opinions. One of the great things that the Torrent pantos emphasize is that the children’s views and reactions are treated by the onstage adults as being just as important, if not more important, than those of the adults. This reversal of everyday roles helps empower children besides teaching them that the theatre is a special place where anything can happen. It is likely because the Torrent pantos so clearly celebrate children that they have so rapidly become a favourite holiday tradition for local families.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Jamie McRoberts as the Good Fairy, Greg Campbell as Dame Trot, Bill Fisher as the Squire, Caulin Moore as Jack, Teresa Tucci as Jill, Cyrus Lane as Fleshcreep, Tim Funnell as Ed 1 and Chris Fulton as Ed 2; Caulin Moore as Jack. © 2019 Torrent Productions.

For tickets, visit torrentproductions.com.