Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2005
The Emperor’s New Clothes is the sixth annual British-American Panto presented as a Thanksgiving treat for Columbia County and the surrounding region by Judy Staber and her stalwart Pantoloons, and this year they have a real, albeit small, theatre in which to perform. Having attended and/or reviewed the Pantos at the Spencertown Academy on and off for the past five years, I was pleased to hear that the troupe was moving the show to the Ghent Playhouse for a longer run this year. The Panto inevitably sells out, and more seats and more performances give the opportunity for more people to enjoy this greatest and juiciest of all Thanksgiving turkeys, and for more money to enter the coffers of the Playhouse.
However when I saw the show, I realized that the change of venue created subtle changes in the way I reacted to it. At Spencertown, which is absolutely tiny and where the stage is barely 18 inches above the audience, there was a sense of intimacy and playfulness that was lost when the fourth wall descended in Ghent. I was in the theatre, watching a play. The action was more removed from me, and vice versa, and the lunacy seemed less immediate.
When I said to people that I was going to see the Panto, I received blank stares, and then people said, “Is it panto-mime?” To which I replied that mime had nothing to do with it. Whatever its etymological derivation, the British Panto and its hybrid British-American cousin created by Staber and company, is more closely related to Pantalone and other characters and antics of the Italian Commedia dell’arte than it is to the Marcel Marceau school of silent, white-faced mime.
The basic premise is simple: Take a well-known story, in this case Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, have the men play the women and the women play the men, season liberally with topical songs and jabs at contemporary events, and you have a Panto. It is broad and silly comedy, every joke’s a “groaner”, definitely bad theatre in the best and happiest sense of the word.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is set in the little kingdom of San Versace, where Emperor Modisto the Chic (Rick Rowsell) and Empress Esme Louder (Robert Zuckerman) have more interest in the latest fashions than in the running of their country. Their servants Valet Tino, Valet of the Bedchamber (Sally McCarthy) and former supermodel May Bellini, Mistress of the Wardrobe (Ron Harrington) are run ragged shopping for, dressing, undressing, and redressing their Royal Highnesses day after day. Two scoundrels Fitz Weaver (Nancy Rothman) and Lordan Taylor (Johnna Murray) come to town and see an instant opportunity to cash in on their Majesties’ vanity, promising to make the Emperor a splendid new suit our of their new fabric Fauxganza, which is so very chic that only the most savvy people can see it. Terrified of losing their positions, Mucchi Gucci Pucci, Keeper of the Privy Purse (Paul Murphy), B. S. Spinner, Minister of Misinformation (Judy Staber), and fashion writer Tammy Fullfigger (Charlotte Fennell) profess to see the fabulous fabric, but famous fashion photographer Armano Giogini (Rupert Fennell) is not fooled and swears to get a photo of the non-existent Fauxganza. A surprise appearance by world-famous fashion designer “Hot” Coco Puff (costumer Joanne Maurer) blows the Emperor’s cover, literally, at the birthday parade.
The Pantoloons are a true company, with the main corps of performers remaining the same from year to year. This troupe contains some of the crème de la crème of Columbia County talent, and it is always a treat to see them trot out their tricks. This year’s opus gives everyone a chance to show off their vocal chops, ably backed by Monsieur le Chapeau, the Milliner (aka musical director Paul Leyden) on the piano. Dressed as an Elton John doppelganger, Leyden slyly changes hats and outrageous glasses throughout the run of the show, and gets in a few priceless gags, musical and otherwise.
Staber and company have set The Emperor’s New Clothes in that most flamboyant fashion era since Louis XIV, the swinging 1960’s. This allows Maurer free rein to dress everyone in vibrant colors, tacky synthetics, and the full gamut of ‘60’s fashions from micro-minis to bellbottoms and fringed vests. Zuckerman is especially resplendent in his empress drag, sporting an amusing amount of masculine arm hair between the top of his opera-length gloves and the modest cap sleeves of his gown. Harrington dares to flaunt his lovely legs in a skirt shorter than his blonde bee-hive wig is tall. Rothman and Murray also wear their drag well, using their own shoulder-blade length hair to ape the 1960’s craze for men.
The 1960’s theme is carried over into the music parodied this year, with knock-offs of hit ‘60’s Broadway shows such as Man of La Mancha and Fiddler on the Roof as well as top-40 pop tunes from Blood, Sweat & Tears, the BeeGees, Neil Sedaka, and the Village People. There are a couple of nice numbers, like the Guys & Dolls inspired Fugue for Fabricators that show excellent ensemble singing. Knock-out numbers are delivered by Sally McCarthy (natch!) who is often teamed here with Harrington. Zuckerman really wails on Esme’s Turn and Murray and Rothman make mincemeat of The Lion Sleeps Tonight at every opportunity.
Rowsell does a delightful dance to Irving Berlin’s immortal Puttin’ on the Ritz. I still liked his knee-cymbals number from last year Robin Hood the best, but there is no question that Rowsell is the twinkle-toes of this group and its fun to watch him kick up his heels.
Staber trots out a southern accent for B.S. Spinner this year (we learn late in the proceedings that B.S. stands for Betty Sue – phew!) and looks remarkably pert in a blonde bob with sparkly pink barrettes. Murphy juggles an outrageous Italian accent and the bulk of the contemporary political humor with aplomb. Rothman and Murray make a great team of scoundrels.
Tom Detwiler is credited with directing this happy piece of chaos, although there is no question that this is a team effort through and through. Given the distance that even the small increase in theatre size creates for the Panto, I found the show at its most engaging during the audience participation moments and the final raucous chase scene when the cast sprinted noisily through the aisles. Perhaps Detweiler, Staber, and company can find more ways to bring actors and audience in closer proximity if the Panto stays at Ghent next year.
The Pantoloons’ production of The Emperor’s New Clothes runs weekends through December 11, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs a zippy 80 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005