Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2007

“When the slapstick’s too thick and the Prince is a chick,
That's a Panto!
When a guy wears a dress and not under duress,
That’s a Panto!”

- to the tune of That’s Amore by Harry Warren, lyrics by the PantoLoons

I suppose there are some people who don’t like the Panto, but I am not one of them. Every year I look forward to seeing the PantoLoons cross-dress and dissect another well-known fairy story for my amusement. This year it’s a two-fer, as playwright Judy Staber et al have conflated Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin into one big baby-napping bad hair day of musical mayhem that is already selling out the Ghent Playhouse.

Because Rapunzel has some deeply ancient agrarian roots (the heroine is named after the European root vegetable, Campanula rapunculus, also called Rampion) nearly all the characters this year have wacky plant-related names: Rapunzel’s (Ron Harrington) mother is Rosemary Gardener (Paul Murphy) and her sister is Ranuncula (Rick Rowsell), aka Buttercup. The witch who steals her is known as Dame Ragweed (Johnna Murray) although it turns out she was christened Violet (Are witches christened?? I’d better look into that...) Rapunzel is rescued from her faulty tower by the handsome Prince Basil (Sally McCarthy), son of the Dowager Queen Belladonna (Tom Detwiler), whose elder brother King Borage (Cathy Lee-Visscher) has fallen for Buttercup, after she has, apparently, spun straw into gold and paid off the kingdom’s war debt. Of course we all know who really did the spinning, that evil one-eyed troll, Rumpelstiltskin (Judy Staber), whose plan to acquire Borage and Buttercup’s first-born child is thwarted by the clever eavesdropping of the palace servant, Thrift (Joanne Maurer.)

Providing the musical accompaniment and narration is Paul Leyden as Campanula, aka Campy, who not only wears at least two hats but apparently can play the piano with no hands.

Bad vegetable jokes are only the beginning of this year’s raucous romp, which include the perquisite fart and butt jokes and jabs at the current President (whose last name is fortuitously botanical) and his administration. I think it is the people who don’t find farts, butts, or President Bush funny who don’t like the Panto, so if that description fits you you’d probably better stay home. Ghent will have no trouble filling their seats with people who appreciate this delicate brand of broad humor.

The is the eighth consecutive year that Staber and company, under Detwiler’s direction, have brought their brand of PantoLoon-acy to Columbia County and their third at the Ghent Playhouse. Staber comes up with the basic script but once the full cast is assembled it gets mangled, er, re-written liberally, music is added, and each player fleshes out his or her part according to his or her gifts.

McCarthy and Murray are the strongest singers in the group, and while McCarthy is the professional, the musical numbers this year definitely favored Murray who brought down the house with her lusty renditions of “Evil in Them Streets” with Harrington and Hello Violet! Hello Bella!, to the titular tune of Hello, Dolly! and We Are What We Are with Detwiler. McCarthy was in fine voice though, and her big number was a memorable rendition of Hair with Harrington providing back-up.

While Staber is often cast as a twinkly scooter-riding fairy, here she is down right disgusting as the hump-back, one-eyed and generally filthy Rumpelstiltskin, whose penultimate baby-snatching led to the obligatory chase scene. Her money number was “They Can’t Know My Name” to the strains of the title song to Fame.

In a cast overflowing with queens, Detwiler once again proves himself the biggest of them all, although as always he has stiff competition from Harrington and Rowsell, charmingly cast this year as the blushing blonde ingénues. Detwiler gets the better gown and wig though.

I noted in the program that Hudson Valley Magazine has named the PantoLoons the Best Place in the Hudson Valley to see Men in Drag, to which the Loonies have rightly replied, “Hey! What about all us women in drag?” I second that remark and think the Magazine is dead wrong. The Cohoes Music Hall is the Best Place to See Men in Drag, while The PantoLoons are the Best Place to see Women in Drag, a sorely neglected art form which Americans generally find much less amusing than male cross-dressing. This is because most Americans have never seen Sally McCarthy’s chest hair, or watched the incomparable Nancy Rothman (sadly missing from the PantoLoons’ line-up this year because she is involved with Shakespeare & Company’s December 9 staged reading of Sonia Pilcer’s The Holocaust Kid) play a man in drag, as she did in the PantoLoons 2004 production of Robin Hood.

This year McCarthy and Lee-Visscher are the stand-out female-to-male dragsters (does that make them Drag Kings??) They duet nicely on Hello Borage! Hello Basil! a riff on Alan Sherman’s Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah which was itself a riff on Amilcare Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda.

Another thing Americans do not do well is talk back to actors. Here you are encouraged to cheer the heroes, boo and hiss the villains, and call out helpful hints like “She’s right behind you” which fly in the face of all we have been taught about how to behave when attending live theatre. In her program note Staber gently reminds all comers that they are the audience in audience participation, but I noticed that the PantoLoons have carefully planted ringers in the house to get their overly-polite American audience stirred up.

My one quibble with this year’s production was the inclusion of a couple of numbers from the relatively recent (it opened May 1, 2006) Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone. I wouldn’t have recognized them at all if I hadn’t just seen and reviewed the Broadway tour of that show at Proctor’s three days earlier. This begs the question of just how and when a tune can be said to have entered the national vernacular. In the good old days, the score of a Tony award-winning musical would have been hummed throughout the land in a matter of weeks and the show would have been parodied on The Carol Burnett Show or the The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour within six months of opening and everyone would have gotten the joke. Nowadays few people know what’s running on Broadway until it has been there a decade or so, or is produced by Disney. I liked all the tunes used in this year’s Panto, but I think for a topical song to be entertaining to the masses it has to start with a universally known melody.

Rowsell has designed a suitably generic medieval set which opens up the Ghent stage to its full width and depth to accommodate all the merry mayhem and Leyden and his keyboard. And Maurer has worked her usual magic on the costumes. It was apparently her great wish that this year’s Panto be set in the Middle Ages because of the costuming opportunities it would allow her, and her enthusiasm is evident in the final garments, from liripipes to hennins.

The PantoLoons' production of Hair Loom: Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin in Dis-Tress runs weekends through December 9, 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 an hour and forty minutes with NO intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007

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