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In Ross Petty's world, selling out is a good thing. The actor-impresario's annual holiday pantomime at Toronto's Elgin Theatre revels in its blurring of art and commerce: Product placement is, according to the critics, sometimes the most entertaining part of the show.

This year's edition, Robin Hood: The EnvironMENTAL Family Musical, which opened last night, brings back some of the show's long-time sponsors, including Bank of Montreal and Tim Hortons, which recognize the value of a captive audience. In one of the two commercial breaks woven into the show, Robin Hood (Jeff Irving) and Maid Marian (Canadian Idol's Eva Avila) visit a BMO branch to inquire about buying a home, prompting a bank manager to weep in joy.

In another spot, a visit to Tim's turns tragic when an ugly stepsister (a hideously cross-dressing Dan Chameroy) is drawn into a catfight for double-dipping a doughnut in her friend's coffee. Theatre purists who object to commercial integration may be missing the point, since the only pure thing in Mr. Petty's world is camp. Good thing for him it pays the bills.

Ross Petty and his gang should immediately be put in charge of all TV commercials. Twice in Robin Hood, this year's Petty "family musical," as its creators describe it -- or pantomime, as the rest of us describe it -- a screen is lowered, and the show treats us to a few words from or about its sponsors. Each has its product lauded in a brief film clip, performed by the stage cast in their stage characters, and each so funny and so well-done that one quite forgets that it's an advertisement. I especially enjoyed the plug for Tim Hortons, which involves Jessica Holmes as the Queen of the Forest and Dan Chameroy as someone called Nurse Plumbum, stirring up viciously competitive toil and trouble over their double-doubles.

Now, of course not every theatre can give thanks for corporate help in this unbuttoned manner, though it might be fun if one or two of them did. The far-from-unspoken rule of a panto is that anything goes, and the ads are just the most blatant example of the ways in which Robin Hood pokes holes in the story it is theoretically telling.

They are also, I am inclined to think, the most enjoyable; their outrageousness is thoroughbred.




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