Keeping holiday traditions alive has been a lot harder this year. Many people can’t be with their families, and the threat of COVID-19 looms large in our minds. So, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Theatre Nova would be continuing their annual holiday pantomime in 2020. Even though audiences can’t gather at the intimate theatre to see a live show, Carla Milarch and R. MacKenzie Lewis have managed to make this year’s Zoom show, “I’m Streaming of an Alright Christmas,” a delightful virtual theatre experience for the whole family.
The art form of pantomime comes from England, where the rollicking variety shows have become incredibly popular around the holidays. Like their English predecessors, Theatre Nova’s pantos always include comedy, music, and audience participation. That last component might seem like a challenge on a virtual platform, and indeed several of the characters bemoaned their inability to connect with the audience members through Zoom. But Theatre Nova has found creative ways to make it possible for even an invisible audience to be a part of the show, making great use of the “Raise Hand” feature on Zoom, as well as asking audience members to unmute at key moments. Select child audience members, at the request of the characters, could be heard saying “Booooo!” whenever the monster, aptly named the “Rona Monster” and looking suspiciously like a famous hockey mascot, appeared, but it wasn’t clear if that had been pre-recorded. There was also a fun moment when the kids were invited to “email” Santa to cheer him up about Christmas, and later had their well-wishes read aloud by Santa himself.
Speaking of the Rona Monster, the show this year focused on Santa, Friendly the Elf, Rudolf, and a few other characters trying to figure out the best way to make Christmas as merry as it could be in spite of COVID-19. Monica Spencer was a fantastically charming and exuberant Friendly, and David Moan coupled wonderful comedic timing with gorgeous vocals as Santa and Yukon Cornelius. As Rudolf, a surprisingly friendly Abominable Snowman, and a delightfully over-the-top Mrs. Claus, Mike Sandusky had me smiling whenever he was onscreen. And a small cameo from panto mainstay Dan Morrison was a highlight of the show. But the real star had to be Charles the puppy — the cuteness overload of a small puppy with fake antlers on his head was almost too much. And, not to spoil the show, but he saves Christmas!
Milarch’s script was fun, engaging and able to make a point about COVID-19 safety without hitting the audience over the head with it. There were also cute jokes and puns for the kids and adults alike, including several funny plays on the word elf: “Pull your elf together”, “elf-contained” and “elf-confidence”. Lewis’ music, along with his deft implementation of song parody (Les Miserables, Hamilton and Buck Owens – get it? – were sampled to great effect), hit just the right tone every time.
Seeing a theatre production virtually makes me long for the day when we can all sit in a theatre as the lights go down, and witness the magic of theatre live. But with theatre companies like Theatre Nova continuing to create such exciting and effective virtual work, it will more than satisfy our theatre needs until that day comes.
“I’m Streaming of an Alright Christmas” runs December 24-27. For tickets and more information, please visit theatrenova.org.