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Review: ‘Merlin: A Traditional British Panto’ at The British Players

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If your kids squirm through The Nutcracker, it might be time to consider a new Christmas theater tradition: the annual British Pantomime produced by The British Players. Pantomimes are traditionally performed at Christmas time (as the company’s beautifully-designed playbill explains) but are nearly always based on well-known children’s stories. This year’s production, Merlin, directed by Malcolm Edwards, is a take-off on the story of King Arthur and is being performed at Kensington Town Hall through Sunday, December 11th.

Robert Leembruggen, John O'Leary, and Chuck Hoag. Photo courtesy of The British Players.

Robert Leembruggen, John O’Leary, and Chuck Hoag. Photo courtesy of The British Players.

For those who have never experienced a pantomime before, think of it as a cross between a musical comedy and interactive theater, where the audience is expected to participate in moving the story along: from booing the villains to warning the hero when the villain is nearby, to joining in on the many familiar songs sung throughout the show. It is this interaction that makes the show so much fun, with the kids in the audience quickly catching on and shouting out advice to the actors. While most adults in the audience sit in the chairs set up theater style in the hall, the company has smartly designated a place right up front for the younger crowd to sit on the floor, allowing them to get even more involved in the action and perfectly positioning them to become part of the show themselves.

From the opening line of the show (“I am Arthur, King of the Britons” a la Monty Python) to the final closing number, Merlin shows the audience a rollicking good time. The cast includes people of all ages from little kids on up, with standout performances by Missi Tessier as the story’s bad guy (make that girl) Ravenclaw (yes, the Harry Potter jokes scattered throughout the show are completely intentional) and Malcolm Edwards (who is also the show’s director) as the lovable Henrietta Cupcake. The back and forth between wannabe Knights, Neddy Night (Charles Hoag) and Davy Day (Robert Leembruggen) was also fun to watch, with Leembruggen’s portrayal of the not-so-bright Day bringing in plenty of laughs.

For those who love musicals, there are plenty of songs in Merlin. Most of the songs are familiar tunes, including “The Eye of the Tiger,” “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and even “Uptown Funk,” although the words are often changed. The show’s writers, Bob Heather and Cheryl Barrett, have done an admirable job of working the songs and the many pop references into the script.

The cast of 'Merlin.' Photo courtesy of The British Players.

The cast of ‘Merlin.’ Photo courtesy of The British Players.

The cast efficiently tackles the many different types of music with some beautiful singing ranging from 8-year-old Lily Jeanne Pacuit’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to professionally-trained singer Meghan Williams Elkins (Queen Guinevere) and Joe Lilek (King Arthur)’s rendition of “What I Did for Love.”

The costumes (by Libby Dasbach) and the set design (by Albert Coia) did not disappoint. The costumes looked Renaissance-like, and I particularly enjoyed the effective lighting design by Don Slater and special effects design by Bill Wisniewski that added to the fun and helped to move the story along.  One of the company’s best innovations was the use of a video screen to denote set changes. This helped the entire production flow seamlessly from one scene to the next and really kept the action moving.

If you want a belly laugh or two to become a part of your family’s holiday celebration, you won’t want to miss Merlin. It’s the perfect potion to put your family under a holiday spell.

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Merlin plays through December 11, 2016, at The British Players, performing at Kensington Town Hall—3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

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Note: Merlin is recommended for all ages.

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One Response to Review: ‘Merlin: A Traditional British Panto’ at The British Players

  1. Chrish Kresge December 6, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

    Nicely written review!