The Elgin and Winter Theatres are Toronto's most unique performance spaces in the city. This Double-Decker venue was built in 1913 and originally known as Loew's Yonge Street Theatre. The Winter Garden closed in 1928 and remained vacant for half-a-century, while the Elgin remained open as the Imperial 6 movie theatre. The Ontario Heritage Trust purchased it in 1981 and restored them both back to their original look over nearly three years starting in 1987, and also added lobbies, lounges, and a multi-story backstage area that accommodates both spaces. Since the reopening of both theatres in December 1989, this multi-use space has hosted theatre productions, music, film, and dance.
Over the holiday season there's a chance to see both theatres, as there are two great productions running right into the first of the new year. The 20th anniversary show of Ross Petty's long running theatrical romp, has the man himself taking his last "boo" on stage as Captain Hook in Peter Pan at the Elgin, The Winter Garden has the brand new stage production of Dee Snider's Rock & Roll Christmas Tale, featuring none other than Twisted Sister himself, along with Taylor Swift and a live band. Both are very much worth going to. Neither of them would be considered traditional productions by any means, which is what makes them so unique and most-definitely worth seeing. There are also surprisingly many similarities between the two as well.
In the spirit of the holiday season, these two shows both offer much needed festive fun, Dee Snider;s Rock N Roll Christmas is about an aging 80's hair-rock medal band called Daisy Cuter (pronounced Cutter), as "metal heads don't care about spelling". There's on pit orchestra for this show, so the four-piece band plays all their own instruments on stage, just like a real rock show go figure. Snider acts as narrator from both on stage and each balcony side stage. The band performs a few iconic tunes, such as "I Wanna Rock" and "We're Not Gonna Take It", along with other rock n roll Christmas tunes. That's where the plot line jumps in, as the band is being taken over by Santa and the spirit of the season, automatically bursting into Christmas tunes while on stage, while their lead vocalist wants to remain true to Satan and heavy metal rock. For a band that can't even spell their name correctly, there's a good chance of misspelling these two characters as well, Santa and Satan.
The relatively unknown cast of 10, was injected with a bit of nostalgic music of a different sort with the inclusion of late 80's pop artist Taylor Dayne, who plays the bar owner of Club Dazzle. DJ Dedrock is upstairs packing the house, while Daisy Cuter aren't getting anyone into the club, until a couple of groupee's start sharing their Christmas tunes on social media. Suddenly they gain a bit of popularity and are asked to doing a double-bill with the DJ. Yes, that's about it, but there's a lot of humour and music to ride through the 90-minute no-intermission show. The audience are given red or green flash lights that are to be used during the performance, but it wasn't clear when so there would be sporadic bits of light appearing at odd intervals throughout the night.
Taylor and Snider have had a long standing friendship, since connecting via their common shared interest of going to the same high school, Taylor a decade later. Opening night had a full house on the lower level, but fairly sparse in the upper level. Snider came on at the end of the show to introduce a few of the production team who do work behind the scenes. Cast, crew, and other VIP guests were then invited to the after-party at where else, The Hard Rock Café just up a few blocks north on Yonge Street. Notables who came out to rock the holidays included Barenaked Ladies lead guitarist Ed Robertson, actors Annie Murphy (Schitt's Creek), Ashleigh Rains (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2), Meghan Heffern (Backpackers), Angela Asher (Hard Rock Medical), Rachael Ancheril (Rookie Blue), Arwen Humphreys (Murdoch Mysteries), Mouna Traore (Murdoch Mysteries), Lachlan Murdoch (Murdoch Mysteries), Suresh John (Mr. D), E! Canada host Chloe Wilde and Breakfast Television Toronto host Jennifer Valentyne.
Petty's 20th anniversary Production is called Peter Pan in Never/Wonder Land, and is actually a theatrical mash up of two classic fairy-tales, where Peter's Neverland meets' Alice's Wonderland. Perhaps it's Petty's way of leaving stage with a double-whammy. While he'll continue working off-stage, this year is the last that he will play the noted villainous character in his productions, garnering a constant barrage of boos each time he takes the stage.
The rest of the cast are all much younger relative newcomers to the stage, and each got to showcase their talents, singing, break-dancing, and even skipping. Ross regulars Eddie Glen and Dan Chameroy, both return as Tweedle Dum/Smee, and Tinkerbum respectively. Chameroy by and far steals the entire show with his now infamous returning drag persona. Each year the one-liners get better, as Chameroy hilariously fumbles across the stage with that trademark hair and crooked lipstick.
The now-expected self-produced character commercials have begun as much a part of the production as the onstage acting. They were done for the Hilton Hotel, Toronto Star, and Sick Kids Hospital. An evening tradition is to invite children up on stage at some point during the show, and this one evening was a trio of Sick Kids patients who also appeared in the commercial spoof. A very touching and personal moment reflective of this time of year when so many have thoughts of giving. Unfortunately, the Sick Kids Hospital Foundation information booth had no traffic whatsoever. In fact, the young lady behind the table said she was hoping that at least one person would sign up with a donation. Here's hoping that at least awareness was made.
Not shying from current event references, one of Petty's Captain Hook disguises was Ronald Trump, portrayed as another evil villain. During battle of the Peter Pan Am Games, he suggests building a wall between Neverland and Wonderland as a viable solution. He also ventured into Caitlyn Jenner territory, albeit very gently. He also cracked a one-liner about Snider that may have been a bit of a stab, since this year he is going head-to-head with another seasonal production in the same venue. Similar to Snider, Petty also came out at the end of the show to thank the audience for their patronage, acknowledge the hard work of the new cast of characters, and asked everyone to tell others about the show and come back to see it again.
Overall this production seemed to lack the pizzazz of previous years. It seemed the sparse crowd had to be coaxed more than once to not only boo Petty, but applaud others. There were some weak moments on stage during the two-hour-plus show, and a couple of obvious technical difficulties as well. It felt almost like an obituary of sorts for the 20-year run of Ross Petty Productions, although the show will continue, just without Ross onstage. For those in the crowd, many who have returned year-after-year, this will be a memorable performance regardless. The key thing is that those in attendance did enjoy the show. There were boos, hoots, hollers, plenty of hardy laughter, and a standing ovation at the end. That's basically all that matters sometimes. That, and the show merchandise, complete with lighted magic wands, Bendy Fairies, and Final Boo tees.
People may decide to choose seeing one over the other, but it's highly recommended seeing both if that's a possibility. Each of these wonderful productions deserve to be seen, as do each of these glorious theatres. The great thing about both productions is that one could actually attend twice and get slightly different renditions as they are both regularly updated, fine-tuned, and tweaked to be the best they can be. Let the theatre battle of the season begin!
Ross Petty's Peter Pan - Now playing at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge St) until January 3rd, 2016
Twitter: @rosspettypro @theRossPetty
Dee Snider's Rock & Roll Christmas Tale - Now playing at the Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge St) until January 3rd, 2016