Ah, where are the Pantos of yesteryear? In this, their 18th season, there are only two active original members of the PantoLoons and while the young performers who have come on board in recent years are fabulous, they have lost track of exactly what they are about.
A British Panto is a very specific form of theatre, and the PantoLoons were founded by a Brit – Judy Staber – who until very recently got playwright’s billing on the shows, even though they were, and still remain, a collaborative effort amongst the Loons. Staber’s oversight ensured that the joie de vivre and lunacy that is a British Panto remained intact in this Americanized version.
That is not to say that this year’s Panto isn’t great good fun, but it hews too close to the plot of the Disney film and doesn’t take some very obvious liberties that would have moved it from spoof to true Panto. In these days of “Fake News” and burgeoning accusations of sexual assault by powerful men there is much political satire to be mined from the story of a woman who loses her voice*.
But for those who love a drag version of a Disney princess, this is the show for you. Sam Reilly is a divine leading lady. He is a truly beautiful Ariel and Joanne Maurer’s costumes greatly aid the illusion of both femininity and fishiness. (All the merfolk except King Triton carry their tales like dress trains, attached to their wrists.) Reilly remembers when he is underwater and when he is on dry land, and swims and swirls across the stage. And he is a powerful singer!
Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon has inherited the mantel of Panto Dame from Tom Detwiler and Paul Murphy, and channels his inner Harvey Fierstein to create a deeply villainous Ursula. Again, Maurer has done a bang-up job on the cephalopodian costume. Schane-Lydon has arms to spare! I wish the Loons could have come up with a second evil solo for him later in the show, rather than doing a reprise.
Mark Wilson gets many Trumpian lines as Ariel’s father, King Triton, although no attempt is made to make him look or sound like the sitting President. He and Kathy Lee-Visscher get to play their own gender, while all around them cross dress or play crustaceans. Lee-Visscher plays a new character, Ariel’s Aunt Ethel, sister to her late mother and sister-in-law to Triton. While she enters as Ethel Mermaid she concludes the show as Ethel Merman!
Nothing makes me happier than seeing Sally McCarthy in a trouser role on the Panto stage. As Prince Eric’s valet, Grimsby, she assists new Loon Meaghan Rogers in her first trouser role as Ariel’s beloved. Rogers takes her leading man role very seriously and is quite charming as the Principal Boy. She has a sweet singing voice, but no one belts out a number like McCarthy!
Another newcomer, Emily Spateholts, is a nervous Sebastian. (Isn’t Sebastian a lobster in the Disney film? Spateholts keeps referring to herself as a crab. Either way, I’m allergic.) Maurer has given her appropriately Rastafarian dreadlocks but she fails to maintain a true Caribbean accent. Maurer gamely makes her annual Panto appearance – as Nana, the sweet little granny who is reading us this bedtime story, and briefly as Flounder, in another one of her own fabulous costumes.
Reilly has once again also designed the excellent set, which has his trade mark nooks, crannies, and surprises. Isabel Filkins supports with a fine lighting design.
Catherine Schane-Lydon has taken over as musical director from Paul Leyden. She has been an honorary Loon all the years that her husband has been dragging her to the shows (pun intended) and she has the proper Panto spirit. An especially fun musical moment came from an unexpected chorus of bivalves in a take-off of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” (But if they were annoying him so much, why didn’t King Triton tell them to clam up?)
Lee Visscher and the Loons have managed to squeeze every old wheezy fish pun ever created into their script (turn off your shellphones, just for the halibut!) and the show ends in a proper chase around the theatre. It wouldn’t be the holidays without the Panto, and hopefully next year will see the return of a little more satire. Ah well, they managed to wedge in a joke about the Hudson River!
The PantoLoons present The Little Mermaid: Beyond the Sea at the Ghent Playhouse from November 24-December 10, 2017. Script and lyrics by Cathy Lee-Visscher and the PantoLoons, directed by Cathy Lee-Visscher, musical direction by Catherine Schane-Lydon, set design by Sam Reilly, costume design by Joanne Maurer, lighting design by Isabel Filkins.
CAST: Al Fresco (Emily Spateholts) as Sebastian; Anita Mandalay (Cathy Lee-Visscher) as Aunt Ethel; Helena Corset (Sally McCarthy) as Grimsby; Howie Izinbed (Meaghan Rogers) as a squid and Prince Eric; Jack A. Ninny (Mark Wilson) as King triton; Kar DeBord (Sam Reilly) as Ariel; Ophelia Tuchus (Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon) as Ursula; and Sybil McFrey (Joanne Maurer) as Nana and Flounder.
The Ghent Playhouse is located at 6 Town Hall Place in Ghent, NY. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 pm and Sunday matinees are at 2 pm. Tickets are $22 each, $17 for Members of the Playhouse and $10 for Students with ID. Tickets may be reserved by calling 1-800-838-3006 or going to the website at www.ghentplayhouse.org
*(Dreary Detail: The Little Mermaid has its roots in the ancient Greek legend of Philomela, whose brother-in-law rapes her and then cuts out her tongue to prevent her from revealing his crime.)