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'A Snow White Christmas' brings new family tradition to Salt Lake City, panto style

Published December 14, 2013 1:13 pm

Stage • Musical theater loosely based on a fairy tale arrives tailored to Utah.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The family behind "So You Think You Can Dance" is bringing a British tradition to the Utah theater — but it is anything but stuffy.

Lythgoe Family Productions' "A Snow White Christmas" is as informal a live show as you can imagine. Intentionally so.

"We are totally the opposite from 'Kids, sit down, shut up,' " said writer/producer Kris Lythgoe. "We encourage kids to shout out, to scream, to make some noise. They all get swords, they all get wands. They can do sword fights in the aisles if they want to. It's very much interactive."

The pantomime, or panto as it's known, is not a staple on this side of the Atlantic, but it dates back hundreds of years in the U.K. and it's a holiday family tradition. It's comedy. It's musical theater loosely based on a fairy tale. It's filled with contemporary music, and this one is tailored specifically to Utah.

The Prince of Park City (David Osmond), for example, comes down the mountain to find a wife. And then there's Herman the Huntsman (Dustin Bolt), an easy opening for some jokes about Jon Huntsman.

Nigel Lythgoe, best known as the judge/producer/director of "So You Think You Can Dance," makes a video appearance as the Magic Mirror. Amy Whitcomb ("The Voice") stars as Snow White; Margo Watson as the Wicked Queen; and Jonathan Scott Menza as Muddles, the court jester who speaks directly to the kids in the audience.

This is not a children's show that parents attend as chaperones.

"We're not catering to just little kids. It really is for families," Kris Lythgoe said. "The jokes are for adults and the magic is for the kids. We try and entertain all generations."

Said director Bonnie Lythgoe: "It makes me laugh when you see parents and the children.

"The parents get the joke and the kids don't. They look at their parents, and they start laughing. But they don't know what they're laughing at."

Kris Lythgoe compared it to creating family-friendly TV like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "American Idol."

"Like bringing the family together to watch a TV show, we're trying to do the same thing with theater," he said.

"This has got to be one of the few things where you can bring a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old and a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old and they'll all enjoy it," added producer Becky Baeling Lythgoe.

In Utah, that could be just in one family.

And there's pop music that will strike a chord for different age groups. The dwarves sing "YMCA" — Young Miners Cottage Association. You'll hear Huey Lewis' "Power of Love," Psy's "Gangnam Style" and Katy Perry's "Firework," just to name a few.

"I pick the music so that it speaks to different generations," Kris Lythgoe said.

This is also more affordable for families than, say, a touring Broadway show. Instead of $100 a ticket, it's $100 for a family of four. Because Kristopher Lythgoe knows what it's like to spend a lot of money to take a child to a high-priced show and have things go wrong, like when he took a youngster to "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

"It was $130 a ticket, and after five minutes he started crying and we had to leave because he was scared of the Grinch," he said. "And that was the inspiration for us — well, why don't we bring panto, because it's such a family-friendly experience."

The Lythgoes first brought panto to Los Angeles; Salt Lake City is the site of their second American panto venture.

"Salt Lake City's values are the same as ours," Becky said. "First and foremost, their core is family values. It's important for the families of Salt Lake City to come together at Christmas, which is one of our agendas in doing panto.

"Secondly, Salt Lake City embraces the arts in a way that even the meccas like New York or Los Angeles do not. They support it in their schools, they support it for their young children, and out of that you have such a pool of talent that, obviously, has been recognized on shows like 'So You Think You Can Dance,' 'Dancing With the Stars,' etc. That made us wake up and say, 'Wait a minute, this is where panto needs to be next.' "

It's not coincidence that "SYTYCD" auditions have come here repeatedly, along with the occasional "Idol" audition.

"I remember the first time we came up, and we were blown away," Kris Lythgoe said. "Most years we come here, the talent is far superior to New York."

Bonnie Lythgoe, who has directed dozens of pantos in the U.K. over the past 30 years, said she was beyond pleased by the Salt Lake auditions. There were so many talented performers, "we could have had this show five times over."

The Lythgoes are committed to making panto a part of Salt Lake City's holiday tradition. They've signed a three-year contract with the Jeanné Wagner Theater, which they're already hoping to extend.

"Oh, yes," Becky said. "For as long as they'll have us."

"It's Snow White this year, Aladdin the next and probably Cinderella the following," Kris Lythgoe said. "We're here to stay."

spierce@sltrib.com

Twitter: @ScottDPierce —

A Snow White Christmas

When • Dec. 13, 14, 16, 19, 20, 21, 23, 26, 27, 28 at 7 p.m.; Dec. 14, 21, 28 at 11 a.m.; Dec. 14, 15, 21, 22, 24, 26, 27, 28 at 3 p.m.; Dec. 29 at 1 p.m.

Where • Jeanné Wagner Theater, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $25-$54 at the box office or arttix.org