Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2006
Gas for the car – $30 dollars
Dinner at the Blue Plate – $28.50
Ticket to the Ghent Playhouse – $15 or less
Watching the Panto – PRICELESS!
Prince V (for Very) Charming (Sally McCarthy) is being badgered by his mother Queen Blair (Paul Murphy) and father King Mum (Joanne Maurer) to marry and provide an heir to the throne, and so Major Domo (Johnna Murray) is sent forth to proclaim that all eligible maidens are forthwith invited to a ball at which the Prince will select a bride.
Cinderella (Cathy Lee Visscher) wants to go to the ball. Her wicked step-mother, the Baroness Hardcastle (Tom Detwiler), and ugly step-sisters, Bagatha Chrispa (Ron Harrington) and Hagnes Demure (Rick Rowsell), find this notion laughable. But her pal Dusty Grimes, the chimney sweep (Walter Bauer), and her Fairy Godmother (Judy Staber) have other ideas.
Blah, blah, ball…blah, blah, glass slipper…blah, blah, happily ever after. You know the story, but wait until you see the players! As always, this seventh entry into Judy Staber’s catalogue of British-American Pantos features men playing women and women playing men and a whole boat-load of topical songs, local in-jokes, and general hilarity. Audience participation is loudly encouraged, and I, for one, don’t need much encouragement.
I always bring a posse of friends along with me to the Panto, and last year the party happened to include the friend of a friend who I didn’t know very well. At the final curtain she turned to me with a look of horror on her face and asked, “Is THAT what you call good theatre?” I was taken aback, partly because I thought I had distributed advance materials that explained what we were going to see, and partly because, as a critic, people expect me to be an arbiter of artistic merit. Was the Panto really what I would call “good theatre”? And, if so, why?
The answer is yes, I do call the Panto good theatre. I think some people separate theatre into two categories: comedy and “good theatre,” as if the two are mutually exclusive, which is not the case. Not all good theatre is serious, not all serious theatre is good. Neither is all comedy. But it is entirely possible to laugh your ass of at good theatre. Didn’t Monty Python prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt several decades ago?
The Panto is always incredibly good theatre, giving you the opportunity to laugh heartily at the comical capers of local actors willing to make fools of themselves for your entertainment. This year is no exception. In fact, this year Staber and company, under Detwiler’s adroit direction, stick much closer to their source material than they have in the past. While there are still plenty of jabs at current politics and mores, Staber hasn’t attempted to foist a completely modern spin on the proceedings. So where the wicked Stepmother was called Dot Com in her earlier version of “Cinderella,” here Detwiler plays her as the Baroness Hardcastle, merely a your run of the mill wicked widow with marital ambitions for her dastardly daughters, rather than a misplaced comment on the electronic age.
On the other hand, it was fun to see Staber back in her crinolines singing “Nobody Loves a Fairy” and to hear Sally McCarthy take out her guitar for a second sing-along rendition of “Lady Lucille.” I believe I am on the record several times over as being a big fan of McCarthy’s singing, and I was delighted that she got a couple of rip-snorting solos, and a few well-tuned duets with Johnna Murray. I am also partial to seeing both of those ladies in mustachios, and I now add Joanne Maurer to that list.
Frankly, I don’t know who I enjoy in drag more – the ladies or the gentlemen. Harrington and Roswell are always delightfully outrageous in petticoats, and, boy-o-boy do they make a couple of UGGGG-LEEE step-sisters!! And Detwiler brings a certain grace and a lovely pair of ankles to his portrayal of the Baroness Hardcastle. Murphy’s rendition of Queen Blair put me in mind of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen from “Through the Looking Glass” on a particularly frazzled day.
Only Visscher and Bauer get to play it straight. Visscher holds her own by reimagining the title role as the ultimate dumb blonde. I am sure there is strong British precedent for the Chimney Sweep character as an ally of Cinderella’s but here in America we have no such tradition and the raison d’etre for Bauer’s presence was lost on me. But he did sing an amazingly passionate love song to chimneys everywhere and the soot they engender.
Maurer has whipped up some dandy costumes this year. Successful cross-dressing takes a particular talent as various curves and angles must be disguised while others are convincingly faked. Detwiler’s gowns are very fetching and Murphy’s motley (he also opened the show as that commedia del arte staple Harlequin) morphs merrily into Queen Blair’s rainbow confection.
Ill health kept me from attending the opening show at Ghent this year, and so this is my first opportunity to speak publicly about the FABULOUS new seats! Oh, where do I begin? They are comfy and commodious and they don’t slowly tip you over backwards into an awkwardly intimate situation with the person seated behind you! I also really enjoyed reading the plaques on the back of each seat whereon donors could express their support for the Playhouse or for individuals they cherished. Three cheers for everyone who made this excellent renovation possible.
My disappointment at the Panto this year was not being able to see Paul Leyden at the piano. He was costumed as Ozzy Osbourne, complete with rat in hand, and I am sure he contributed many entertaining moments that I missed completely because of where I was seated and how he was situated on the stage. On the other hand, I really don’t know where else the piano could have been placed, considering the need to keep the aisles free for the traditional all-cast sprint through the house towards the end of the show.
I suppose there are some ultra-conservative old Scrooges out there who don’t find the Panto funny, but for all the rest of us it is the ultimate holiday treat. How wonderful that it has found such a cozy home in Ghent where it can run for three full weekends!
The Pantoloons’ production of Cinderella runs weekends through December 10, 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 eighty-five minutes with no intermission and is suitable for all ages. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006