Ross Petty couldn’t leave 25 years of pantos behind without playing his ‘favourite evil person’
“There could be no alternative.”
That’s Ross Petty’s response when asked why he’s come back to play Captain Hook in “Peter’s Final Flight,” the 25th and final live edition of his beloved holiday musical spectaculars.
If this feels like déjà vu, you’re not mistaken: Petty played Captain Hook in “Peter Pan in Wonderland” in 2015 and said then that it would be his last time treading the boards so he could focus his energies on producing the shows.
But now that the tradition is well and truly ending, he couldn’t resist taking one final bow. Especially now that the show is back live at the Elgin Theatre after two years of digital versions. “It could not end after 25 years — or essentially 27 years including the virtual shows — without my coming back,” he said.
Audience members have consistently asked if he’d make a comeback. “Now there is joy in the land,” he said. “Joy and tears. They’re all saying the same thing: ‘We’re happy to see you but sad it will be the final performance’.”
And it’s “Peter Pan” again so that Petty can play Hook, his “favourite evil person,” he said. “This guy is just a maniac. I had to go out with a guy who really thought he was the king of the world.”
Sara-Jeanne Hosie, who stepped in to play the baddie after Petty stopped performing, will be in this year’s show as the Captain’s wife, Helga Hook. “I wasn’t about to send her packing because she’s been so good in the years since,” said Petty.
Audiences will recognize other familiar faces in this year’s show: Dan Chameroy returns as Plumbum, the Petty franchise’s version of the pantomime dame; and Eddie Glen returns for his 20th show at the Elgin as Smee. Alex Wierzbicki stars in the title role, having appeared in the last two online shows, and Stephanie Sy joins the Petty party for the first time as Wendy.
Petty and I talked about his plans for this year’s show at the iconic Senator restaurant on Victoria Street, chosen for its proximity to the Elgin’s stage door. But it turns out the place is also full of personal memories: its owner, Bobby Sniderman, and Sniderman’s wife, Marlaina, are dear friends of Petty and his wife, Karen Kain, and Petty recalled the four of them sitting together in a back booth when the renovated Senator reopened in 1984.
“That’s when we were doing ‘Dick Whittington,’” he said, recalling when he and Kain performed together in the holiday pantomime produced in Toronto by Paul Elliott.
He laughed when I asked him if all his memories are structured by holiday shows. But he didn’t disagree.
“‘Peter Pan’ 2007, with Kurt Browning; 2008, Dan Chameroy was Plumbum for the first time … 2010, Melissa O’Neil was Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Yeah. I have them categorized and I’m not necessarily good about memorization of anything. Ask my fellow actors.”
Petty first encountered the Christmas pantomime tradition when he appeared in English impresario Elliott’s productions. “I had three shows with Paul Elliott before I said, ‘I want to be your co-producer here in Canada and be your eyes on the ground.’ Part of that decision was to take away all those British elements; he would bring the sets, the costumes, the performers, the props, the music from England,” recalled Petty.
“After seeing how we could do those shows here in this country, we parted ways, Paul and I, amicably,” said Petty. “That’s when I began at the Elgin, fully 100 per cent Canadian. That’s something I’m really proud of. Sets, costumes, casts, you name it, Canadian.”
This year’s behind-the-scenes company is made up of stalwarts: “Tracey Flye has been my director and choreographer for 21 years. Matt Murray, six years as my writer. Bob Foster, 17 years as my music director. I mean, these are people who know what their job is when they come to rehearsal for the first time. I trust them implicitly,” said Petty.
While he likes to keep most of the content in the shows a secret, Petty said the tradition of topical references will not extend to mention of the war in Ukraine nor COVID-19. “People are trying to escape with my show,” he said. The trucker convoy? Probably not. But the “Rogers breakdown … maybe,” he said with a smile.
As if he didn’t have enough on his plate this year, Petty has also self-published an 80-page souvenir book called “25+ Years of Family Musicals!” It’s packed with photos and “my personal comments about my memories of each and every one of those shows,” said Petty. The book will be available at the theatre and at his website, rosspetty.com.
The shows cost upwards of $2 million each, which Petty raises through corporate sponsorships and ticket sales.
Getting sponsorship deals has been particularly challenging this year: “Anybody who has been my sponsor over the years was also so badly affected by COVID that I think they all pulled in the reins,” he said. This year only two main corporate sponsors remain, the Toronto Star and Hilton Toronto, with Pizza Pizza, Aviva Insurance and Reconnect Ontario as associate sponsors.
This year and last, Petty produced his show in association with Crow’s Theatre and said that its artistic director, Chris Abraham, was generous in introducing him to donors to help cover some of the shortfall.
“The box office is really doing well, which I’m excited about because I carry that worry in me, as I’m sure any producer of a theatre company does,” said Petty.
Mention of the Star leads Petty to recall the last time he saw the paper’s late publisher, John Honderich, at a restaurant at Yonge and St. Clair, about a week before Honderich died earlier this year.
“That’s the other thing that comes to mind with saying farewell to this show. It just brings it more crashing home to me about how finite it is, this life we lead,” he said.
Kain retired from the National Ballet last year after 50 years with the company, including 16 as artistic director. “We just need to spend time together,” said Petty. “We’ve never really spent a lot of time. I mean, we do at the beginning of the day and the end of the day. But then we go our separate disparate ways. So it’s important at this later stage of our lives.”
They’re planning to travel to their favourite places: France, the U.K. and certain spots in Eastern Europe, places where “there’s always something extraordinary happening,” said Petty.
But before that, he’ll step back onto the stage of the Elgin for one last run. “I haven’t been hearing the boos for some years now,” he said. “I think it’ll be a roar.”
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