Over the years, the Lythgoe family has earned a reputation for producing popular reality television shows, such as “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” But what you may not know is that the family also shares a real passion for British Panto – and the idea of “bringing affordable theatre to families across America.”
“These days, it’s tough to find quality entertainment that the entire family can enjoy together and afford,” says Kris Lythgoe, a prolific writer/producer and CEO of Lythgoe Family Panto. “So many evenings, you might have Mom watching her favorite show on Netflix, Dad in another room watching his favorite show, one of the kids playing Fortnite, another on YouTube. So, our thought is let’s get the family back together to experience some great live entertainment.”
And Nashville families will be able to do just that as Tennessee Performing Arts Center and Lythgoe Family Panto present “Peter Pan and Tinker Bell: A Pirate’s Christmas,” beginning Dec. 13 at TPAC’s Polk Theater.
Billed as “a singing, swashbuckling adventure performed in the high-flying style of a British holiday
Panto,” this fast-paced caper features an all-star cast, including John O’Hurley (“Seinfeld,” Broadway’s “Chicago”) country music’s Tegan Marie, the Disney Channel’s Garrett Clayton and Nashville’s own Diana DeGarmo (an “American Idol” and Broadway alum).
“Kids in the UK grow up with Panto,” Lythgoe says. “It’s a huge part of the holidays, and it’s a great way to introduce children to the theatre because it starts with a familiar story and adds in pop songs and lots of big laughs. It’s still musical theatre, but with the added bonus of interactivity. We let everyone know up front that it’s okay to cheer for Peter Pan and boo when Hook comes on stage. So that really engages the kids, and draws them in. Although, I must say that the parents are often the ones cheering the loudest.”
While that basic format is consistent among all Lythgoe Family Panto shows, each production is especially tailored to fit its respective city and cast.
“Part of the fun for me as the writer is getting to know each city and picking up on those local jokes and
references. I remember my first trip to Nashville, there were three separate bachelorette parties on my flight from L.A., so you know that had to be in there. And, of course, we had to include Hattie B’s and poke a little fun at Memphis.”
This custom approach has proven to be a hit with audiences. But in his quest to bring British Panto to America, Lythgoe did find that he needed to make some adjustments.
“We found that some of the bawdiness and innuendo that you might normally see in British Panto doesn’t really work for an American audience. And while British Panto usually includes more original songs, we’ve put in familiar pop songs that every generation will recognize and enjoy. So, you might have something from the 1950s, the ’80s and today – there’s really something for everyone.
“The level of talent also is quite different in these shows. British Panto might have some familiar soap stars who are great fun but may not be great vocalists. Here, we have stars like Diana DeGarmo, which really adds to the overall quality of the show and allows us to work in a few extra songs. Nashville is such a fabulous city – the music capital of the world and so supportive of the arts. That makes casting a dream because everyone wants to come here. I mean, John O’Hurley was performing on Broadway as Billy Flynn, and left to come to Nashville. That says a lot.”
But as eager as Lythgoe is to share “Peter Pan and Tinker Bell” with local audiences, he’s even more pleased to spread the word about GiveKidsPanto – the family’s California-based nonprofit, which enables underserved school children to experience live theatre.
“TPAC has such an amazing education department, so I’m really looking forward to those student matinees. I think we’ll have about 1,000 Title I students attending these shows, and most have never even seen a live show before. That’s what I’m most passionate about – introducing these kids to the arts. It really brings a tear to my eye to see them so happy, singing along and cheering. For me, that’s the reason we do what we do.”
Amy Stumpfl has been covering Nashville’s arts scene since 2004 – first with The City Paper, and then for The Tennessean. A proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association, she was selected to participate as a Fellow in the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute (2005) and the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (2008).