Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2008

Fabulosity, thy name is Panto!

Everyone I took with me to see the 9th annual British-American Panto at the Ghent Playhouse – this year’s incarnation is nominally Jack and the Beanstalk with a smattering of Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill and Simple Simon Met a Pieman, and a healthy dollop (make that a giant wallop) of irreverent topical/political humor – agreed that this was the best Panto EVER! And while I have fond memories of all the others I have seen, I have to agree that this is an exceptionally cohesive and lively offering. Get tickets NOW!! They WILL sell out!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term Panto, it is a thoroughly British holiday tradition involving cross-dressing, audience participation (but not in the cross-dressing) and general mayhem. A well-known fairy tale is taken as the basis, so there is no need to explain a plot, and then every conceivable liberty is taken. Many of the jokes are groaners (and you are encouraged to groan all you want) and nothing is sacred.

So this year dim-witted, cow-loving Jack Trott (Sally McCarthy), after committing the fiduciary faux pas of selling his beloved Bossy (Rick Rowsell) for five magic beans, climbs the beanstalk and finds not one but two Mortgage Giants – Fannie Mae (Cathy Lee-Visscher) and Freddie Mac (Johnna Murray) – whose bullying greed knows no bounds. They hold all the gold, in the form of Harpie (Tom Detwiler, who also serves as director of these hijinks), the Magical Golden Harp, and Goldie (Joanne Maurer, also costumer extraordinaire), the Goose Who Lays the Golden Eggs.

Back down on terra firma Jack’s mother, Dame Foxy Trott (Paul Murphy), who bears an uncanny resemblance to a former female vice-presidential candidate who shall remain nameless (Hint: It’s not Geraldine Ferraro) is fretting over the adjustable rate mortgage on her farm and the Giants’ threat of foreclosure, as is her neighbor Simon (Judy Staber), who runs a dairy farm with his lovely daughter Jill (Ron Harrington). As Simon aptly laments, Fannie and Freddie sold him a balloon mortgage and he didn’t even get any balloons!

Musical Director Paul Leyden tickles the ivories and plays Sweetie Pie the Pieman. At one point he sells Jill two scrumptious cream pies. Hmmm...two nasty giants and two cream pies in one Panto...is it any wonder that Jill gets a rousing cheer from the audience when she enters with pies in hand at the penultimate moment??

This year’s Panto is penned by the inestimable Johnna Murray, a founding member of the PantoLoons and a woman of vast talent. Over the years I have seen her in a wide variety of roles – from Sarah Jane Moore in Assassins to Amanda in Private Lives and Maureen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane – and I can’t remember a time I wasn’t entertained and impressed. The same applies here as she reveals her inner Jolly Green Giant – and he’s a doozy. Even though everyone on stage is great, when Murray is on you can’t take your eyes off of her.

The person Murray luminescence hurts most is fellow Giant Lee-Visscher. Lee-Visscher come across as more of a “girly-girl” on stage, with her classic features and blonde hair. It is a leap from playing the title role in Cinderella to being an evil green greed-meister. And besides, Murray gets the better wig.

While Murray is named as playwright, the Panto process involves the whole cast, which ensures that each performer gets to do what s/he does best. As soon as Rowsell loses his back-side (played with udder conviction by Maurer) his Bossy trips the light fantastic everywhere she goes. Harrington dons his prerequisite Shirley Temple ringlets and pines divinely. Staber proves once again that the only thing she’s better at playing than Fairy Godmothers is funny little men. Detwiler is glam in gold lame leggings with a black fish-net overlay and to-die-for gold pumps. And Maurer delivers many a heartfelt honk once she morphs from the rear of a cow to the whole of a goose.

But there is nothing better than the musical moment entitled Beanstalk Boogie-Woogie where Murray, Lee-Visscher, and Detwiler become the Andrews Sisters and belt out a retooled version of Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree while McCarthy sings scat. I live for the moment in the Panto when McCarthy gets to wail, and I suspect she does too.

Other stand-out numbers include the Foxy Trott Rap Sarah Palin, played by a man in drag, rapping. You gotta see it to believe it. Tina Fey, step aside! And the Giants entrance, a hip-hop inspired ditty entitled B.R.O.K.E.R.S. practically brings down the house. Fee, fi, fo, fum was never so funky.

Rowsell has designed a simple yet fabulous set. The first change from the Trott Farm to the Giant’s cloudscape kingdom is done in full view of the audience and got a well deserved round of applause the night I attended. And Maurer has outdone herself with the costumes, which again are simple but impressive in their inventiveness.

If you agree with that man who made it clear to me this past summer that Othello was “real theatre” while a Feydeau farce was not, you will not enjoy the Panto. À chacun son goût, but don’t write and tell me that all my taste is in my left foot because I like this sort of thing. The Panto is not just a frivolously holiday romp, it is genuine, one-of-a-kind, homegrown humor, and it is wonderful.

As usual, I brought a load of friends down to Ghent with me for the Panto, and one of them was a first year B.F.A. student at the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU. On the way out I joked with him that this probably wasn’t quite the kind of theatre he was learning about at school, and he replied that, on the contrary, it was classic Commedia dell'Arte, which is true.

Then he asked if the Panto was really created by people who “lived around here.” Astounding but true, not all the talented people in the universe live in New York City. An audition notice passed by me the other day that boasted “This is an excellent opportunity to work with professional actors from the New York production.” Yeah, and it’s a great opportunity for those city slickers to work with the best this region has to offer, and that’s an opportunity of a lifetime! For any unbelievers, the Panto proves it every year.

The Pantoloons' production of Jack and the Beanstalk runs weekends through December 14, 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 silly people of all ages. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members, $8 for children under 12. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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