THE TURN OF THE SCROOGE: Ghent’s 2016 Panto
Theatre review by Gail M. Burns
I am happy to report that the PantoLoons have once again taken the stage at the Ghent Playhouse for the annual Panto – this year a take-off on the much beloved and done-to-death Dickens tale A Christmas Carol in an opus they call The Turn of the Scrooge.
What is a Panto? Well, it is a British theatrical tradition for the holiday season. Basically you take a familiar fairy tale or folk tale, have all the men play the women and the women play the men, add lots of new and (hopefully) witty lyrics to well-known tunes, and ignore the plot completely. There is lots of audience interaction – you get to boo the villians and sing along a bit and shout “He’s right behind you!” and such. Only the most conservative and humorless of folks can fail to be amused by the good old fashioned schtick.
In Columbia County this tradition was started in 2000 by British-born Judy Staber. Staber has now stepped aside, but a continuing corps of like-minded Loons gather to pen and perform a new and original Panto every year. This year Cathy Lee-Visscher takes the reins as the director.
Generally the Pantos are take-off of fairy tales, but A Christmas Carol certainly fits the bill as a story well known to audiences and ripe for ribbing. I am notoriously not a fan of this maudlin tale and was therefore ever hopeful that the Loons would take full advantage of every opportunity to make mayhem with Dickens’ ghosts and misers (and especially a certain mewling tyke with a crutch.)
But the Loons have played it fairly straight with the plot – which will delight the legions of Christmas Carol fans out there – it is with the supernatural aspects of the story that they have taken the boldest liberties. For instance, did you know Jacob Marley had a brother, Bob? I will not give away any further hilarious surprises, but trust me, you will never be able to think of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future with a straight face again.
There are only ten Loons and many more characters in Dickens tale, so there is more doubling and tripling of roles this year. This puts an added burden on Joanne Maurer’s costume design and the hands of what I can only assume are a cadre of dressers behind the scenes as some of the costume swaps are very swift. As always, Maurer rises to the occasion beautifully, with a myriad of Victorian era costumes that morph men into women, women into men, and Fezziwig into Liberace. I am only sad that the Playhouse only releases rehearsal photos in improvised costumes, because they don’t show the true extent of Maurer’s talent.
Another thing you can’t see in any of the photos is Sam Reilly’s extraordinary set for this production. When you enter the playhouse you are presented with a handsome Victorian cityscape, with an beautifully decorated Christmas tree at the center. It is a pretty as any Christmas card and would be quite enough if what you see was all that you ultimately get. But over the course of the 90 minute Panto walls open to reveal surprises galore. Reilly has turned a tiny stage into an entire Dickensian world that is well worth the price of admission alone.
The drag performances this year are delightful. Sam Reilly looks positively radiant as Tina Cratchit – young woman with her heart set on a big-time career in dance – Paul Murphy gets to wear the fake buns this year as Scrooge’s drunken housekeeper, and Michael Meier is as adorable as a six foot plus guy can be as Fannie Fezziwig in the bloom of youth and again in extreme old age. I literally didn’t recognize Nellie Rustick in the early scenes, so convincingly was she transformed into a young man, and Sally McCarthy, an old pro at trouser roles, was an admirable Ebenezer.
I am always a little sad when Monk Schane-Lydon isn’t in drag, but his three masculine (well, mostly) turns here, as Fezziwig, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the officious little man who solicits alms for the poor from Scrooge, are each delightfully delineated. Again, I must keep some secrets and surprises for you, but watch for his Tim Curry impression during the big dance number. And for gawd’s sake get up and dance when you are invited to! I can’t, but I was ashamed of my many able-bodied audience colleagues who sat on their bums instead of taking the opportunity to boogie-down!
And then there is Tiny Tim…I think many of you know that he is my least favorite of all fictional characters and that I frequently indulge in flights of fancy which involve him not living to take his curtain call. As I entered the Ghent Playhouse I was on tenterhooks – would the Loons make my fondest dreams come true and give the little brat what he so richly deserved?? Well, no. But then his portrayer, Cathy Lee-Visscher is the Artistic Director of the Playhouse, so I suppose it was only politic to let her escape unscathed.
Before I wrap up this year’s Panto review, I must call your attention to the always hilarious stage names the cast lists in the program. Some folks retain the same monikers year after year, and others enjoy making up new ones to suit the theme of the play. I have reproduced them carefully below, and I suggest you read them out loud for maximum hilarity. Why should the fun stop when you leave the theatre?
The PantoLoons present The Turn of the Scrooge, created by The Loons, directed by Cathy Lee-Visscher, Musical Direction by Paul Leyden, Set Design by Sam Reilly, Lighting Design by Isabelle Filkins, Costumes by Joanne Maurer.
Cast: Ivan Aiken Bach aka Paul Leyden as The Narrator and the Ghost of Jacob Marley; Richard “Dick” Smallberries aka Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon as Fezziwig, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and a Solicitor; Olive A. Lodge-Martini aka Paul Murphy as Fresia Bunsoff and Mrs. Cratchit; Trevora Incognita or The Chameleon aka Joanne Maurer as the Poor Man, Fred’s Wife, the Gravedigger, and a Female Guest; Anita Mandalay-Pronto aka Cathy Lee-Visscher as Tiny Tim Cratchit; Ivana Singh aka Sally McCarthy as Ebenezer Scrooge; Wanda A. Round aka Nellie Rustick as Fred, Nan, a Party Guest, and a Woman in the Street; Kar De Bored aka Sam Reilly as Tina Crathcit; Dan Druff aka Michel Meier as Fannie Fezziwig, the Ghost of Bob Marley, and the Ghost of Christmas Future; and Ivan Eedmoredoh aka Mark Wilson as Bob Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Past.
November 25-27, December 2-4 & 9-11, 2016 at the Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place
Ghent, NY 12075. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $20, Friends of the Playhouse $17, Students and Children under 12, $10. http://www.ghentplayhouse.org or call (800) 838-3006.