It has been just over twenty years that the annual Ross Petty pantomime has been a cherished tradition yet I haven’t seen a single one until now! Those super cheesy adverts on the subway have been my one major reference point. For years, I was convinced that each new (Insert Punny Adjective) Family Musical would be as cringey as those posters. If I’ve taken anything away from Lil’ Red Robin Hood, it’s that I’ve been sorely missing out.
Now, it is as cheesy as the posters imply, but I was not prepared for just how much fun it would be! With it’s pop cover musical numbers, stunning costumes and over-the-top performances, it was nearly impossible to resist its goofy charms.
The panto formula: classic children’s classic is reworked with pop culture references (often Toronto-specific), self-referential gags, skewering of public personalities, some sexual innuendos for the adults in the audience, and a moral lesson to top it all off. While that all might sound painfully hackneyed, the ramped-up energy and genuine enthusiasm of this spectacle really sell it.
We open on a high school where we meet Lil’ Red (Robert Markus), an upbeat student who gets sucked into a locker and transported to 16th century Toronto-shire. (As you might imagine, old-timey names of GTA cities are a running gag). He teams up with Robin Hood (Lawrence Libor) and Maid Marion (AJ Bridel) to defeat the evil Sheriffe of Naughtyham (Sara-Jeanne Hosie), who has confiscated all of the books in Sherway Gardens Forest.
While Robin Hood’s whole deal is still stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, Maid Marion in this scenario is a teacher, fighting to give her students the best education possible. With Lil’ Red’s World History textbook now in the hands of our evil villainess and her henchman, Marvin (Eddie Glen), their big mission is to get it back before knowledge of the future gives her ultimate power.
The story takes some not-so-subtle shots at the Conservative government for their cuts to education and the show is, on the whole, quite progressively-minded. The anxiety about education and arts funding isn’t just limited to sassy one-liners either, Matt Murray’s script makes it a major thematic concern.
Villiains are always crowd pleasers, and not surprisingly, my favourites scenes played out between Hosie and Glen as Sherriffe and Marvin. Their weirdly affectionate, sibling-rivalry dynamic is a real treat and showcases their considerable comic chops. And Hosie has some great moments with the children in the audience when they enthusiastically “Boo” her every entrance.
Another highlight is the adorable flirtation between Friar Tuck (Daniel Williston) and Marion’s best friend Sugarbum (Michael De Rose). As Sugarbum, De Rose has many of the best, most risqué one-liners and, arguably, the best outfit! Though it’s a tough choice between Sugarbum and Sheriffe of Naughtyham on that count. It depends on which keeps your boat more afloat—conical bouffant and floral explosions or sequinned regalia. Though, truth be told, all of Michael Gianfrancesco’s costumes are glorious eye-candy.
Cory Sincennes set pieces are, though minimal, practical and very expressive. The environments are filled out with Cameron Davis’ colourful, trippy projections. Director Tracey Flye’s choreography gives her staging a music video vibe that is, once you settle into the fast pace and flamboyant aesthetic, very persuasive.
Lil’ Red Robin Hood is an unapologetically campy, deliciously self-aware good time and part of a truly endearing Toronto theatrical tradition.