The Pasadena Playhouse is going panto. Its holiday offering is A Snow White Christmas — an Americanized adaptation of the genre that’s extremely popular in Britain every December, although panto hasn’t caught on much in the US.
In the show, when Snow White’s wicked aunt, the reigning queen, asks the Magical Mirror on the Wall who is the fairest of them all, the answer will come from a recorded Neil Patrick Harris. It’s an ideal casting decision, given the actor’s love of illusion and magic. But because he won’t be on stage, he’ll be the only cast member who’s unable to hear the audience’s boos and cheers — which are encouraged in panto.
The queen’s query will come via Charlene Tilton, the actress who portrayed Lucy Ewing on all three dips into the television show Dallas. And it will be prompted by the title character who, through no fault of her own, brought forth a jealous rage in her aunt. In the Grimms tale, Snow White has skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as the night. It’s an image most of us know courtesy of Disney, which has sought to trademark the name.
While Pasadena’s Snow White has dark brown hair, her skin reflects her part Sicilian roots and the many childhood weekends spent on the beach in Boca Raton, Florida. Ariana Grande, a star on Nickelodeon, says acting does not come naturally to her. “Acting is more work,” compared to singing — which she says she hasn’t studied, as “I was literally born with it. It’s like my purpose.”
We sit in the library above the Playhouse during a rehearsal break of the Lythgoe Family production. After shaking hands, her arms go inside and stay inside an over-sized sweatshirt with the letters SCC on the front. It’s the same one she wore when she was recorded covering Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” this fall. It’s had millions of online views. Her blue jeans have a hole in the knee.
“I don’t know what the letters mean,” she admits. “I stole this from my makeup artist, Michael.” Will you give it back? “Probably not. Actually, he let me have it. He always gives me his old hoodies. I have a thing for other people’s clothes.”
Tweet, Tweet, Tweet
At the age of 19, Grande is composed, but before and immediately after the conversation, her eyes are glued to her phone. With her 3.7 million Twitter followers, there’s much to keep track of.
She performed the title role in Annie at age eight and continued with community theater in Florida. “I did show after show after show after show. I was always acting or doing concerts with, like, the Sunshine Pops in Florida. I was doing a production of Cinderella at the Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theater when I was 14 and got the call that I was going to be on Broadway in 13 [in the role of Charlotte]. So it was literally doing little production after little production after little production and then a Broadway musical.”
The day after 13 closed, Grande flew to Los Angeles for a callback for Nickelodeon’s Victorious. “I booked that two weeks later. I did the pilot and then a reading of a musical with [Grammy-winning songwriter] Desmond Child called Cuba Libre [creating the role of Miriam in 2010]. Then we went back into Victorious and then I started working on my album, and then the second and third season of Victorious, and now I’m doing a spin-off show called Sam & Cat with Jennette McCurdy from iCarly. It’s been non-stop work. It’s all happened so quickly. I haven’t had any down time and I can’t imagine it any other way. I’m such a workaholic. I get off on it.”
Along the way she amassed millions of fans. “I’m a teenage girl on a television show with a young demographic. My fans are all teenagers and I have to please them.”
Pleasing them all is an impossible task, of course, particularly as working in the entertainment industry encourages young stars to grow up so quickly, often outpacing non-entertainers. “Even now fans will say, ‘Hey, you’ve changed so much. I miss the old Ariana.’ I’ll say that I’m the same Ariana I’ve always been, I’m just growing up. I’m learning new things and making new friends just like everyone else in the world, and I’m wearing my hair in new ways and I’m buying a new sweater. People always evolve. People will change their style and mature, but I’m still the same me no matter what color my hair is [it has been red] or what I’m wearing. I’m always this goofy girl from Boca who loves musical theater.”
This “goofy girl” despises the paparazzi and media hype. “Red carpets are my biggest fear. First of all, the point of those pictures is so that you can be judged. Literally. You’re put on a paper and they either hate your dress or love your dress, and I always get a bad makeup artist who puts like too much makeup on me, and I feel like a clown and I don’t know how to pose right. I’m not the kind of girl who can just strike a pose. I’m too awkward for that.”
Grande, who recently moved from LA’s Hancock Park to the San Fernando Valley, admits she loves dressing up to go out to dinner with her family, but as far as events and red carpets are concerned, it’s much better when her brother is there with her. “I’m okay if he’s there because he reminds me it’s funny and that it doesn’t matter because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks about you, unless they’re your family or your friends. But there’s so much pressure on the red carpet to be the best-dressed and who you’re wearing, and it’s all so superficial to me. It psychs me out.”
She adds, “There are people in this business who want to be famous. They want to be followed by paparazzi. I’m so not that girl. I’m all about the craft and making music and acting and having fun and going home and getting into my pajamas and sitting on the couch and watching TV. I don’t encounter paparazzi very often. When I do, I try to be cordial but my heart drops. It’s scary. I’m not meant for it.”
Snow White’s Prince
While Grande’s life to date may sound more like a fairy tale than Snow White’s, her Pasadena Prince, Curt Hansen, has enjoyed five years of professional success. Hansen, who didn’t get his first professional gig until he was 20, is about to move to Los Angeles from New York where he has twice appeared on Broadway (Hairspray and Next to Normal as Gabe’s understudy and cover). His two LA appearances have been in Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Parade at the Mark Taper Forum in 2009 and as Gabe in the tour of Next to Normal the following year at the Ahmanson.
He’s broad-shouldered, but not as buff as David St. Louis, with whom he performed in Parade and who was in the Playhouse’s most recent production, Intimate Apparel, nor does he sing as low as Davis Gaines, another Parade colleague. “I’m a tenor and I think I sing higher now than I did when I was younger.”
He never had formal training other than some lessons in high school. “I feel that has helped me because I have a rawer quality to my voice. I was taught to not be afraid. If you take lessons they often tell you not to do something because you could hurt yourself. I didn’t have anyone telling me that, so I just did it. It’s a muscle.”
Hansen’s voice will ring out during A Snow White Christmas. “I get to sing Power of Love by Huey Lewis, which is from one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future. I sing Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You [first recorded by George Benson in 1985]. Even for theater auditions I tend to sing pop.”
He also has a connection with the dancers. “They’re what makes this show look amazing. I know the choreographer, Spencer Liff, from the New York scene [he’s also an Emmy nominee for So You Think You Can Dance]. Spencer works a lot with Rob Ashford [who choreographed Parade].” Musical direction is by Michael Orland of American Idol.
Compared to Grande, Hansen’s late to the game. “I had my first job at 20. She had hers at 14, but she seems to be handling it really well, considering. If I had what she has when I was younger, I don’t know that I’d be the person I am today.”
He grew up two hours north of Madison, Wisconsin and had decided to be a pre-med student. “My parents didn’t like that because they knew how much I liked acting. I had a couple of friends who went to [the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point] who were going to do Aida, which was one of my favorite shows. So I left my other school mid-semester, applied, got in, auditioned, got the lead and everyone hated me. ‘Who’s this kid? Who does he think he is?’ It showed me that I was doing the right thing.”
He completed only two full years of college before dropping out and moving to New York to do Hairspray as Sketch, the nice hot dog cart guy. He also understudied the role of Link and went on as Link “three and a half times — half-way through the show one day because [the actor playing Link] had run off stage and vomited.”
Later he auditioned for a Nickelodeon pilot, Big Time Rush, which got picked up, but his role was re-cast. “I really don’t know why, but they had me back as a recurring guest, which was really nice of them. I did an episode of The Good Wife and an indie film without lines and a short film called Monkey Wrench. It’s an Australian director and they’ll submit it to a film festival there.”
In order to successfully segue from theater to television he films many of his auditions, which he will send to LA. “I’ll do four or five takes of a scene and really break it down the way a football player breaks down film. TV is smaller, more intimate so my go-to, which is to be big and silly, is wrong. I feel like on TV I’m whispering and yet they say it’s perfect. I’m not as comfortable with it. I’m not a quiet person in real life. I’m not a boring person.”
Among his blessings he counts being cast with older actors. “Sometimes I think, God, this business is really exhausting and I’ve only been doing it for five years, and I can’t imagine doing it for 55. I would love to, but it sometimes seems like a pipe dream, but when you see older adults still doing it, you realize it’s possible.”
If worse came to worst, what would he fall back on? “I paint for fun so I’d want to be an art teacher or go to culinary school.” He laughs. “They’re very unstable things!”
Grande and Hansen share an appreciation for co-star Tilton. “Just before I walked into this room,” Grande says, “I’d had a half-hour conversation with her about boys and which ones to stay away from and which ones are the keepers.”
She recounts coming in to work the other day upset because she went on a red carpet horrified by her makeup. “I was like, oh my God, these pictures will be out there forever. And she was like, ‘Sweetheart, come sit with me.’ She talked to me about how it’s not the end of the world. She always has such good advice for me. We talked about the stress and the pressure of being a young television actress and being in the industry at such a young age and regular stuff like boys and drama and friends and everything, and she’s just so wonderful. I’m so thankful I’ve met her and that she’s a part of my life.”
So which boys are the ones to stay away from? She hesitates. “She’s just trying to help me out right now. I don’t want to go too much into it. She’s telling me that the good boys, like the mama’s boys who say all the right things that you want to hear and the ones who are always there for you and love you more than anything else in the world, are the keepers, and the bad boys, the ones that look like a lot of fun, are usually the ones to stay away from.” She giggles.
Meanwhile, she’ll keep her radio on KIIS-FM or 97.1 and listen to Frank Ocean, Mariah Carey, India.Arie, Fiona Apple, and Imogen Heap, or some R&B, as she considers what she should sing on her album. The body of work is done, she says, but she wants to record another half-dozen songs to see if any could boot a current one out of the mix. “I write about love and I write honestly and openly. As I grow up with my fans I want to express that in my music. I’m not going to go crazy and make party records, because that’s not who I am.”
She doesn’t want to rush it. “I want it to be a very big debut album. I want it to be perfect, but imperfect. I don’t want it to be perfect because I don’t want to be perfect.”
So if she were to ask the Mirror on the Wall just one question, it would be what she considers fair: “What will my album release date be?”
A Snow White Christmas, a Lythgoe Family Production at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena 91106. Opens tonight. Tue-Fri 7 pm; Sat and Sun 11 am, 3 and 7 pm. Through Dec. 23. Tickets: $22 – $100. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org. 626-921-1161.
***All A Snow White Christmas production photos by Philicia Endelman