Fred Partridge photo Samantha Silver (left) plays the principal boy, young poet Pierre Bonhomme, in White Rock Players Club’s The Hunchback of Notre Panto.

Ensemble cast took roles ‘and ran with it’

White Rock pantomime mixes eras, blends comedy and pathos

First time panto director Alex Lowe says he “couldn’t be happier” with the way White Rock Players Club’s The Hunchback of Notre Panto – continuing at Coast Capital Theatre until Dec. 30 – worked out.

“The cast is really enjoying it and audiences are loving it,” the busy Vancouver stage and film actor said – adding that working on the show made a big time commitment and a lengthy commute worthwhile.

He also credits the help of choreographer Rachael Carlson, musical director Marquis Byrd and particularly co-director Anne-Marie Zak in bringing the musical – from a script by White Rock panto veteran Dave Baron – to life.

“I’ve performed in a few musicals, but Anne-Marie has a lot more experience in musical theatre – she’s the one who’s seen to making the musical numbers blend really well with the show,” he said.

He said he has enjoyed the challenge of breaking theatre’s usual fourth wall by having the actors interact with the audience.

“It’s a great opportunity to get the audience involved in the show, to call out, or have a character sit in their laps – and that’s been one of the most popular elements with people.”

Lowe said the most unusual pantomime includes all the larger-than-life fun of the Dame (Bryce Paul Mills) and Shenanigans the giraffe, but still retains a significant number of the touching, socially-conscious elements of Victor Hugo’s original novel.

That plays into one of his favourite directorial ideas, he said.

“I like to open people up to being vulnerable by making them laugh first,” he said. “Why shouldn’t there be an opportunity for people to learn something from a show like this?”

The old tale of the hunchbacked bell ringer of Notre Dame, manipulated for evil ends by his ‘protector’ in the cathedral, Cardinal Frollo, and suffering the pangs of unrequited love for the gypsy Esmeralda – whose people are subject to racial persecution – still holds a lot of relevance and pathos for modern audiences, he said.

One big change Lowe made to the original concept (and Baron’s script) was to update the action from the 1480s to the 1920s, he said.

“One of my favourite historical periods is Paris in the 1920s – there were so many interesting things happening in music and art – and it lends itself to providing more colour and more upbeat music,” he said.

“Dave gave me the creative license to do with it what I liked.”

One of the more memorable visual elements is a backdrop specially created for the show by artist Elizabeth Hollick, Lowe said.

“I wanted something that was an homage to Notre Dame cathedral itself – and she blew me away.”

Lowe said he is also very happy with a “phenomenal cast” headed by Ben Pilger as the title character (“I wanted a more sympathetic version – and what Ben brings to the table is a wonderful sense of fun,” Lowe said), with Kelly Thompson as a female Cardinal Frollo, Samantha Silver as principal boy Pierre and Juliana Peralta as Esmeralda all impressing him with their creative commitment and willingness to experiment.

Lowe said that while this one of the smallest casts ever for a White Rock panto – 16 people – he wanted a strong ensemble that was more involved in the action and playing multiple characters, rather than just going off stage and waiting to do their part.

“They just took that and ran with it,” he said.

Shows are at 7:30 p.m., with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Boxing Day (Dec. 26).

For tickets ($22, $15 children 12 and under), call 604-536-7535, or visit whiterockplayers.ca

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