Introducing Americans to traditional British pantomime, long a Christmas staple across the pond, is a tall order. Forget white-faced silent mimes — a panto is a noisy spectacular for the whole family; rather like a Disney film, it needs a fairy tale, music, song, dance, comedy, goodies, baddies and a generous sprinkling of magic. Producer-helmer Bonnie Lythgoe’s “Cinderella” pulls it off, creating a lavish production in a relatively small space, employing a talented dance troupe (many gleaned from “Dancing With the Stars”) and the vocal talents of Broadway’s Jennifer Leigh Warren as the Fairy Godmother, ingenue Veronica Dunne as Cinderella and “Harry Potter” player Freddie Stroma as Prince Charming.
Panto also needs an audience ready to constantly interact with the characters on stage. There are few productions where the fourth wall is demolished so thoroughly; cast members speak directly to the viewers and expect them to shout back — great for kids who, for once, don’t have to be quiet at the theater.
Brits, brought up on panto, understand this. Others have to be told. Cinder’s pal Buttons (a chirpy Benny Harris) sets the ball rolling at the outset, telling auds to yell his name when he comes on stage. The kids get it — and soon everyone else does too, joining in lustily at every opportunity — with the kids’ unexpected comments setting up the best ad-lib gags from the stage.
The story may be based on a fairy tale but, as in films such as “Shrek,” producer-scribe Kris Lythgoe’s jokes work on many levels, silly enough to amuse youngsters yet current enough to make adults chuckle.
Many revolve around Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters Cowel (Eddie Driscoll) and Seecrest (Mark Edgar Stephens), both in extravagant drag, whose broad comedy steals the show.
Cinderella’s father, Baron Hard-up, played by “Leave It to Beaver’s” Jerry Mathers, is the butt of a string of “Beaver” jokes aimed at older members of the audience.
With Baron Hardup and Buttons unable to stop Cowel and Seecrest from bullying Cinders, it’s up to the Fairy Godmother, played with sass by Warren, to set things straight.
And this is where the magic comes in. She turns mice into footmen, Cinders’ rags into a glorious gown — onstage — and Cinders does, indeed, go to the ball in a coach drawn by a white pony, much to the delight of children young and old. Such stunts are created with the help of director of magic Ed Alonzo.
While the story may be old, the music and dance are contempo. Choreographer Mark Ballas (“Dancing With the Stars”) sets the pace from the first set piece, when the villagers dance to Jennifer Lopez’s salsa hit “Let’s Get Loud,” complete with athletic back flips.
Incidentally, the production has its own Cinderella story. Dunne, a 16-year-old from Malibu, was picked to play the lead after an “American Idol”-style talent search.