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'Jack: A Beanstalk Panto' (The Naughty Version) Written and Directed by Rebecca Northan

Now onstage at Port Hope's Capitol Theatre, 20 Queen Street, until December 23.

Credit: Sam Moffatt

Joe Szekeres

"Just plain ol’ good and naughty fun with the occasional eyebrow-raising double entendre mixed in. Allow this terrific cast to whisk you away with its slapstick and shenanigans and leave your troubles outside."

Barista Jack (Zoë O’Connor), short for Jacqueline, gets the day underway for customers at ‘Beanie,’ the local Port Hope coffee shop, with a warm, inviting smile. She’s also known for helping the town's residents if they are down on their luck, sometimes by giving free coffee away. Gus (Steve Ross), a local and friendly guy, comes to the coffee shop daily. Although he is down on his luck, Gus likes to see and speak with Jack, talk to other customers, and spend time there, often reading.

Milk is desperately needed for the café. For some reason, the café cow (Milky White) cannot produce enough milk for the business. Gus knows why cows might have this problem. He massages the cow’s udders and finds the animal dry. The owner of the café and villain Pearson (Paul Constable) orders the cow to be sold and the money brought to him. Instead of doing this, Jack trades Milky White for some beans from a mysterious stranger. When Pearson hears this, Jack is fired from the coffee shop.

Jack scatters the beans, and a beanstalk grows skyward. Jack climbs the beanstalk and meets a not-so-nice Giant (Paul Constable), his frenzied housekeeper (Christy Bruce), and some disco line-dancing Hens where one of them lays a golden egg. There’s also an always-in-heat rabbit and a handsome coffee shop patron (Robbie Fenton). If you recall the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, a harp plays lovely music to put the giant to sleep. A deadpan, gorgeous, and buxom, Steve Ross appears as the harp.

One of my personal highlights in getting ready for the Christmas season these last few years has been the travel to Port Hope to see the Capitol’s panto. Always the naughty version, especially this year. I needed to laugh after surviving my first-ever bout of Covid.

‘Jack: A Beanstalk Panto’ is just plain ol’ good fun with the occasional eyebrow-raising double entendre mixed in. Make it a night to watch some slapstick and shenanigans and “leave your troubles outside” (as the Emcee tells us in ‘Cabaret’).

With an excellent creative team behind the scenes, writer/director Rebecca Northan and Music Director Chris Barillaro add a decent amount of rum to this delicious eggnog of a celebration of the panto. The resulting taste in performance work never overpowers. The script and song lyrics are cleverly and tautly delivered with a piquant punch of several double-entendre meanings that had my guest and me laughing hard. For example, at the top of the show, when the stage goes black, we hear Jack ‘moaning in pleasure’ (I don’t think I need to say more) before she bursts into song. It certainly sets the tone without needing to go into specific details, but my guest and I, at that point, were howling with laughter.

But the naughty nature never ventures over into the dirty for dirty’s sake. That was an intelligent choice because such puerile thinking can and does grow tiresome. The script ventures into spot-on comments about gender fluidity and pronoun usage where it’s possible the show could turn woke. I also wondered how far the adult nature would go when Gus massaged the cow’s udders rather suggestively in a manner that could appear to be something else.

I held my breath.

That’s the beauty of the panto in the naughty version. It suggests without ever being dirty or vulgar. Bravo to a cast that knows when and for how long to revel in these delectable double-entendre moments.

Adam Campbell’s terrific sound design remains a bonus. His selection of pre-show music took me back to my years at high school, where disco and platform shoes remained the style. I could hear every word of the song lyrics thanks to Campbell's meticulousness in design. Too often, I’ve attended several musical productions where the sound balance was out of sync, and that’s frustrating, especially when the plot and humour push forward through the songs. That did not occur at this performance.

Some of Anna Treusch’s set and props designs gloriously remind the audience that a fairytale is being told to us. Many of the props appeared larger than life from my seat in the house which adds to the comedy. Hollywood Jade’s choreography succinctly keeps in time with the music. I was amazed at how Steve Ross could walk down those steps in high heels and wearing a dazzling gold evening gown.

Joyce Padua’s costume designs are reminders of the story as a fairytale. For example, Milky White’s costume is a reminder of Julie Taymor's character designs from ‘The Lion King.’ Nick Andison’s lighting design nicely creates specific locales. The lighting in the Giant’s castle remains shadowy to underscore the ‘drama’ of wondering when he will appear to wreak havoc.

The cheeky cast remains delightful throughout. They’re well-versed in improvisation in front of a live audience.

They continuously break the fourth wall. We boo at Pearson and yay with Jack in the Giant’s castle.

Yes, they’re corny sometimes, especially in the disco line-dancing of the Hens and then asking if the audience wants them to continue returning to the music of a given specific era.

But who cares if it’s corny at times? That’s the appeal of the panto, and that’s what brings people back to the theatrical form.

Zoë O’Connor is lovely as Jack. She initially introduces this concept of gender fluidity, but O’Connor wisely does not make her performance revolve solely around that. Steve Ross is excellent in his juxtaposing performance work as the goofball, slow and dimwitted Gus (who is sharp when understanding the workings of a cow) with the deadpan, drop-dead, ‘bosomy’ Giant’s Harp. What a treat to see Paul Constable live on stage for the first time. Yes, he was Gary from over 150 televised Canadian Tire commercials; however, his comic timing remains smartly in tune throughout, especially when he is bad guy Pearson and improvising with the audience. Clea McCaffrey played the Magic Hen with the perfect dash of sass and silliness at this performance. As the Giant’s Housekeeper, Christy Bruce never ventures out of her control in her frenzy and harried nature. Robbie Fenton and Hal Wesley Rogers round out the ensemble and keep the zaniness clipping along without ever making the play's pacing feel rushed.

Final Thoughts: It has been a long time since I’ve heard ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Thank you to this company for sharing your twist on the story with such abandoned glee. I’ll never look upon this fairy tale in the same way again.

Great fun. We all need this kind of entertainment to get us into the Christmas/holiday spirit. Get tickets, dine, and spend a few moments in downtown shops.

Running time: Approximately two hours with one intermission.

‘Jack: A Beanstalk Panto’ (The Naughty and Nice versions) runs until December 23 at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre, 20 Queen Street. For tickets, or call 905-885-1071.

JACK: A BEANSTALK PANTO (The Naughty Version)
Runs in repertory with the Nice Version
Written and Directed by Rebecca Northan
Music Director and Arranger Chris Barillaro
Choreographer: Hollywood Jade
Sound Designer: Adam Campbell
Set and Props Designer: Anna Treusch
Costume Designer: Joyce Padua / Associate Costume Designer: Arielle Voght
Lighting Designer: Nick Andison
Stage Manager: Alice Ferreyra Galliani / Assistant Stage Manager: Charlene Saroyan
Musicians: Chris Barillaro (Pianist), Alex Panneton (Guitars, Drums & Synth)

Performers: Christy Bruce, Paul Constable, Robbie Fenton, Clea McCaffrey (at this performance for Madison Hayes-Crook), Zoë O’Connor, Hal Wesley Rogers, Steve Ross.

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