Why, it’s the holiday production at the Ritz Theatre Company, running now through December 19.
You haven’t heard of this play, you say? Well, that’s because “Cindy Ella” is an entirely new production, written and directed by the Ritz Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director Bruce A. Curless, with original music and lyrics by local composer and lyricist Brian Bacon.
So, it is unusual and original; you got that part. But the title refers to it as a short panto, and I’m guessing you might be asking, “what exactly IS a panto?”
A panto is a theatre genre based on the British tradition of holiday pantomime that follows criteria or rules that distinguish it from other types of theatre. For example, the cast of characters is consistent across productions. There is a male juvenile, usually played by a young woman; his romantic interest, an ingénue; and an older woman, the Dame, customarily a man in drag. Other cast members can include an animal, often played by two people in a single costume, and a chorus of actors who each perform a variety of roles throughout the show. In panto, the story is usually a fairy tale spin-off.
For “Cindy Ella,” Curless told me, “It was Cinderella, with a bit of King Arthur.”
Audience participation is a key element of panto, with loud and comic interchanges between folks in the seats and the actors on stage being a common occurrence.
And as is the case with the Ritz Theatre production, the music, while drawing on familiar tunes or themes, is frequently original work composed for the show.
This is a quirky project, for sure, and I was curious to know why the Ritz chose to change up their offering for this holiday season.
“We had done ‘Scrooge the Musical’ for years, and it was always popular and well-received,” Curless said. “But we wanted to create something new this year.”
Curless said his first experience with panto was in 2019 when he took the Ritz staff to People’s Light and Theater in Malvern to see their Red Riding Hood panto.
“I was intrigued by it,” he said, “and thought about renting a script from them.”
But, instead, fueled by inspiration from seeing the People’s Light production and the desire to be creative during the pandemic lockdown, Curless and Bacon, who has worked with the Ritz many times, collaborated to write the story and music for what would become “Cindy Ella.”
“Before I started working on this, I knew NOTHING about panto,” Bacon said. “It just never crossed my radar.”
But as he became more familiar with the style, Bacon was all in.
“Panto has such a silly sensibility. I got hooked on it right away.”
“Bruce sent me things to listen to, which were like Broadway parodies,” Bacon said, “and I took the spirit and ideas from those and wrote the new songs.”
Bacon and Curless connected weekly to assess progress, make changes, and bounce ideas off one another.
“There was constant back and forth,” Curless said, “and for me, it was very therapeutic – to be collaborating and doing my own thing.”
Bacon agreed, “We have done so many projects together that our ideas spring-boarded off each other. We worked all through the pandemic and helped each other out in the creative process.”
Bacon also relied on cast member Krysten Cummings – a South Jersey native who lived for 25 years in the UK - to fill in first-hand information about panto.
“Krysten and I have done shows together,” Bacon explained, “and it has been great to have someone who has been part of this as a resource.”
“There are a few standard stories,” Cummings said, “but in keeping with early panto tradition, the themes are very topical.”
“It is rowdy and raucous, with jokes for everyone,” she continued, “and it’s always evolving.
Cummings is an accomplished singer/songwriter and musical performer who has appeared on Broadway and in productions around the world. But, as a teenager, she got her start in theatre at the Ritz, and she is proud to be part of this new production there and excited for its possibilities.
“It is so much fun to go to the theatre and not know what to expect,” said Cummings. “This can grow.”
Matthew Weil, who plays the Dame, was part of the group that saw the People’s Light production in 2019 as a panto virgin, and he liked it. “It was highly participatory,” he said, “and I thought it was very funny.”
In this role, which Weil told me is a very prestigious part (wink, wink), he had the opportunity to explore his parameters as an actor.
“I like that this is not a dramatic piece,” he added. “I got to spend my time thinking about what will make my character funny.”
Weil also cited the need for flexibility as an absolute requirement for actors in a panto. “The continual challenge is to be ready for anything,” he said. “When there is a lot of improvisations, and the audience is yelling, you have to react.”
“It’s important to remember that things are not going to go precisely as they did at rehearsal.”
But Weil embraces his role and the significance of this show. “It has become exceedingly rare for original work, especially a family show, to be produced in South Jersey.
“I’m delighted that we are bringing this genre to the Ritz Theatre audience.”
Curless could not agree more. “This turned out wonderfully,” he said. “The lyrics are clever and singable, the sets and costumes are bright and colorful, and the pace is lively.
“It’s very festive and absolutely family-friendly.”
All these characteristics add up to make “Cindy Ella,” an ideal choice for a holiday event that will entertain children and adults alike. And unlike some seasonal shows, this holiday production has a broader theme.
“One of the things I like about our show is that it doesn’t beat you over the head with Christmas,” Matt Weil said. “It is like a salad with Christmas dressing.”
Written and directed by Bruce A. Curless, music written and directed by Brian Bacon, and choreography by Courtney Daniels, “The Absolute, Fantastical Adventures of Cindy Ella and the Once and Future Golden Christmas Goose in the Joyous Years That Followed the Never-Ending Plague (A Short Panto)” is on stage for four more performances: Wednesday, December 15, 7:30 PM; Friday, December 17 and Saturday, December 18 at 8:00 PM; and Sunday, December 19 at 2:00 PM. The cast includes Danielle Defassio as Cindy Ella, Zachary Moore as Archie, Ernie Jewell as The King, Glen Funkhouser as The Chef , Matthew Weil as Madame, Krysten Cummings as Barsuoola, and Lindsey Krier as Dulsebraya. Tickets are available here.