Q&A: ‘Cinderella’ director and star look forward to Atlanta’s first holiday panto

Spencer Stephens and K. Ken Johnston as the Dames in "Cinderella: A Christmas Panto." / Courtesy of Aris Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Aris Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Aris Theatre

Spencer Stephens and K. Ken Johnston as the Dames in "Cinderella: A Christmas Panto." / Courtesy of Aris Theatre

Those in the United Kingdom have plentiful opportunities this holiday season to see a traditional show known as a Christmas panto. A quick Google search reveals that London alone has a vast array of pantos throughout the city, and, across the British Isles and Ireland, the art form is an essential part of seasonal entertainment. Now, for the first time ever in Atlanta, Arís Theatre is going to show local audiences what all the fuss is about with “Cinderella: A Christmas Panto,” on stage Dec. 15-23.

Short for pantomime, a panto is an adaptation of a well-known story, such as a fairy tale or epic poem. Adding a hodgepodge of contemporary songs to the mix, pantos are known for their outrageous humor, pop culture references and audience participation.

ArtsATL sat down with “Cinderella” star Kaley Pharr and director John Ammerman to find out what Atlanta audiences can expect from the Celtic theater’s latest work.

ArtsATL: British audiences know pantos well, but can you give an overview of the art form for locals who might not be familiar?

John Ammerman: It’s sort of a combination of musical comedy, clown and vaudeville. There are singalongs with the audience; there are actors singing solos; there’s dance that goes on; and everything is basically surrounded by contemporary music. The music is really familiar so audiences can relate to that very quickly. [It has] a lot of comedy and crazy, wild characters, but it’s all in the context of a fairy tale.

We’re trying to be very sensitive to [the traditions of an English panto] in terms of the specific style of the play and what the play presents. The whole tradition is that wherever you do a panto, you [have] references to locations and politicians, for example, or famous people in the city that you’re performing in. So, there are a lot of references to things around Atlanta.

John Ammerman, the director of "Cinderella: A Christmas Panto,” at Aris Theatre.  / Courtesy of Aris Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Aris Theatre

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Credit: Courtesy of Aris Theatre

ArtsATL: Describe the audience participation component.

Ammerman: [In a panto], audience participation is really important. There’s a great deal of audience involvement and reactions to things. But whereas the British audiences are used to things like [a villain saying], “I didn’t really do that,” and the audience saying, “Oh, yes, you did!” American audiences aren’t used to it. We’re incorporating cue cards, so we can guide the audience through this, and they’ll get the hang of it as we go through the whole play. And I think that will be a lot of fun. We’re beginning the whole evening with having a Christmas carol singalong. Even before the play officially starts, we’re already getting the audience warmed up to respond to things.

ArtsATL: Kaley, as a performer, what is different about this show versus a regular play?

Kaley Pharr: Figuring out the ebb and flow of our jokes and feeling the rhythm of things, I think, is one of the bigger differences versus a traditional play. Figuring out what’s best for those particular bits and those particular moments. The gentlemen that play the two dames, the ugly stepsisters -- my goodness! If I break [into laughter on stage], it might be because of those two. They’re just silly. It’s such a silly time.

Ammerman: And that’s another tradition in the panto -- the “dame” or the villainess, in each one of these productions is played by a man in drag. And, of course, in this play, there are two ugly stepsisters. So, we have two men in drag playing the ugly stepsisters.

Kaley Pharr, the star of  “Cinderella: A Christmas Panto,” at Aris Theatre. / Courtesy of Aris Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Aris Theatre

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Credit: Courtesy of Aris Theatre

ArtsATL: You also mentioned that there are pop songs and Atlanta references. Can you share more about those?

Ammerman: The play functions as a jukebox [musical]. So, we have some parodies. For instance, we’ll parody the song, “Hello, Goodbye” between Cinderella and the Prince when they first meet, as she’s leaving and he’s trying to say hello. And so, they have this song that’s riffing off of the Beatles -- it has a lot of that. Some things are suggested in the original script, but most of it has to do with what we think is appropriate for our audiences in Atlanta while still maintaining the integrity of “Cinderella” . . . although it’s pretty wild and wacky.

ArtsATL: Kaley, do you have anything to add to that?

Pharr: I do. I want to share one of my favorite lyrics. The opening number is a parody of “Good Morning, Baltimore” from “Hairspray,” and it’s “Good Morning, ATL.” It is super fun, and in one of the verses it says, “Good morning ATL, and may I say, you’re sounding swell,” and then, “from Ludicris to Little Yachty, to Peachtree to Peachtree to . . . Peachtree.”

That’s been my favorite lyric thus far, and hopefully that’s a good little teaser for everyone. It’s just fun to sing! And I’m excited that’s in my song. I’m excited to play around with the delivery of that a little bit more and see where it lands best.

ArtsATL: What are you most looking forward to with this show opening?

Pharr: This is my first time working with Arís, and I’ve enjoyed it -- it’s something different. This is my first experience with a panto obviously, as an American, but I think it’s been such a fun format to explore, and I think it’s going to be really exciting to introduce that to a new audience. I hope it’s well-received because I want everyone to explore and expand their scope a little bit. And I think this is a really great way to do that.

THEATER PREVIEW

“Cinderella: A Christmas Panto.” Presented by Arís Theatre. Dec. 15-23. Academy Theatre, 599 N. Central Ave., Hapeville. $15-$65. 404-474-8332, aristheatre.org


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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL

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