Despite a rocky start, Kris and Becky Lythgoe have dutifully nurtured a Pasadena tradition, the Lythgoe Family Panto, which just turned 10
In fact, the panto, short for pantomine, has been so successful that it has spread to other cities. To celebrate, the Lythgoes have revived and reworked “A Snow White Christmas,” to honor the past and acknowledge the cultural changes that have occurred over the past decade.
Kris recalled how they lost money in the first few years. And, he said, never in a million years did he think they would make it this far, using Pasadena as a base and spreading out to other cities. After all, panto in Kris’ home country England is anything but silent, and not always child-friendly. In fact, it’s the audience that makes most of the sound, booing villains, cheering heroes and generally dominating the highly interactive performances.
In the Americanized version of panto for kids, “We saw the need in the faces of the children,” Kris said, with kids coming from all over to watch and participate, including students from low-income families riding buses to see what might be their first live theatrical performance.
The “Lythgoe Family Panto’s Snow White Christmas 2.0” opens Friday, Dec. 13, continuing until Dec. 22 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E Green St, Pasadena.
“It was really the birth of my son, the start of my own family,” that Kris said got him interested in producing panto, mainly because “I couldn’t find something that was like an introduction to theater.” With all the actors in Los Angeles, of course, there were “Broadway-quality productions, but nothing really suitable for kids 3 and up,” he said
Partially schooled in the UK, Becky was very familiar with panto.
“I understood it was in the culture and had been for hundreds of years,” she said. Yet, it is so ingrained in the UK world that “the Brits don’t realize that it’s a vehicle” for introducing families to theater, Becky said. When Kris brought it up, she thought, “What a brilliant idea.” Yet, she warned Kris, “You’re going to have to change it up for America.” First, “you can’t make it bawdy.”
“I don’t think we could have adapted panto without Becky,” Kris admits. “She was essential.”
This year’s version of Snow White stars Grammy Award-winning Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child as the Wicked Queen. Snow White is played by the Disney Channel’s Olivia Sanabia (“Coop & Cami Ask the World”). The cast also includes Jared Gertner (Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon”), Garrett Clayton (“Teen Beach Movie” and “Hairspray Live!”) and Michael Campion (Netflix’s “Fuller House”).
Tony Award-winner Neil Patrick Harris is the Magic Mirror. The production was in Raleigh, North Carolina this month.
Kris’ father, Nigel, is best known to US audiences as a judge for “So You Think You Can Dance,” which Nigel also co-created, along with Simon Fuller, and directs as well as produces. Kris has produced (15 episodes). His mother, Bonnie, now divorced from Nigel, served as a judge. As one might expect, the productions have a SYTYCD touch: Emmy Award winners Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo (NappyTabs) choreographed. Kris wrote the book and Bonnie directs.
Becky noted, “‘Snow White’ was one of our first productions; one of our most successful productions with Ariana Grande.” That’s why they brought it back. To make Snow White more “timely” Kris noted, “We made a lot of changes because the landscape of the world has changed so much.” That means Snow White doesn’t need a prince and the wicked stepmother has become a wicked aunt.
“The trouble is today the top 10 (songs) have explicit lyrics,” Kris said. That won’t do for a family show. So familiar pop tunes from the past sneak into the score. With “Rocketman” getting Oscar buzz, Elton John tunes are being re-introduced to a new generation. Originally denied rights to use it, Kris noted that “Becky used her magic and cleared it immediately” for John’s “I’m Still Standing” to be part of the score. Garrett Clayton, who plays the Huntsman, gets to belt that tune out.
It appears likely the next generation of Lythgoes will continue the panto family tradition. Kris and Becky’s kids are now 12 and 4. The older one helps to sell merchandise. Kris also noted, “Our eldest always wants to have a joke in the show. I have put a couple in.”
Becky said their youngest often latches onto one song. Last year, it was Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.”
Alice in Winterland and the Snow Queen might be future projects. “The essential thing is that kids know them,” said Becky.
The shows also introduce something that might be unfamiliar to Pasadena children. “One of the key things we do in every play is make it snow at the theater,” Kris said. There’s a pre-show winter wonderland and arts and crafts fair, and this year people can stand next to a hologram of the princess. Because the show now travels, there are some things they can’t have. The original “A Snow White Christmas” had a real horse. Opening night for this version will include some miniature ponies as a tribute to that fine moment.
“A Snow White Christmas” opens Friday, Dec. 13, and continues until Dec. 22 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E Green St, Pasadena. Tickets are $28 to $113. For more info, call (626) 449-7360 or visit thepasadenacivic.com. The Lythgoe Family Panto also currently has productions at the Laguna Playhouse (“Peter Pan and Tinker Bell: A Pirates Christmas”) and in Nashville (“Aladdin and his Winter Wish”).