It is a truth universally acknowledged in the modern era that everything must be novel, revolutionary, and exciting. People will (apparently) stand in line for the newest iPhone (whether they need it or not), and every new business is supposed to “disrupt” the market (whether it needs it or not).
But when the holidays roll around, when it turns dark and cold, we find ourselves craving the comforting memories of our childhoods. We bring out favorite recipes, decorations, and stories. We surround ourselves with familiar carols and songs, and secretly delight in them even though we claim we’re far too sophisticated for that kind of old-fashioned junk. At this time of year especially, we remember once again that there is underappreciated pleasure to be had in the familiar, the tried and true, the old-fashioned.
This is what the British Players’ Panto is all about. Every year, for the holidays, theaters in Britain, from grand old West End palaces in London to tiny old church halls in villages, put on productions in a traditional style that goes all the way back to Medieval Mummer’s Plays, Renaissance Commedia dell’Arte, and Victorian Music Hall and Punch and Judy shows. Panto, short for Pantomime, far from being the silent style we attach to the word, is very noisy, including music, dance, slapstick comedy routines, horrific puns, audience participation — usually in call-and-response and singing along with familiar songs.
Frosted, this year’s offering currently playing at the Kensington Town Hall, is a perfect example. Like most Pantos, it is based (loosely) on a fairy tale — in this case “The Snow Queen” — but from the title one can tell that there will be a more than a little influence, (not to say parody) of a certain blockbuster animated movie musical of a few years back.
The production is both lavish and somehow homey. From the glossy programme (by J. Andrew Simmons and Frankie Lewis) to the icy blue set with a projection of a castle that magically becomes snow-covered at the appropriate moment, or changes to a log chalet or mountain vista as needed (by Charles Hoag, Mike Lewis, Albert Coia and Mac McCord) to Cathy Dunn’s make-up effects and Nicola Hoag’s costumes, this is clearly a labor of love — an impression reinforced by the fact that there are more people on the production staff than in the cast, and many in both share names, making this feel like a family affair.
The characters stem both from the movie template and the original stock Panto characters. First to come and give her prologue is the Snow Fairy (Ella McQuillan), who, as tradition dictates, always enters from stage right and speaks in rhyme. Her Manchester accent is charming, but could be boosted by Matthew Mills’ sound team to make her easier to understand. Next comes Dame Florrie, the flirty old comic center of the piece, as always portrayed with campy relish by a man — the very funny Allan Brown. As the source movie requires, this Panto has not one but two starring ingenues, or “Principal Girls,” Princess Ella (Allison Meyer) and Princess Hanna (Amanda Dullin-Jones). Meyer has the more difficult job, because the script calls for her to spend almost the whole show solitary, nervous and unhappy, while Dullin-Jones gets to be spunky and play off of two love interests. But both actresses have lovely voices, especially in their duet, “I Will Never Leave You.”
The good love interest, or “Principal Boy” in Panto-speak, while traditionally played by a girl in breeches (perhaps they think U.S. audiences are not ready for that yet?) is here well-embodied by Tyler Hanson. The Villain, Prince Anders, a vain, nasty, power-hungry fop, is terrifically portrayed and beautifully sung by Joe Lilek. And there is some nice gender-bent casting, as his requisite evil sidekick/bodyguard, Sinestra, is a towering Amazon in black platform boots, black-and-white wig and suitably swooping silver cloak embodied by the inimitable Missi Tessier. Sinestra’s name emphasizes their evil nature, because they always enter from stage left, like the Devil did in Medieval Mystery Plays. But perhaps the biggest treat is the clown character, Frosty (yes, a snowman), presented with a squeaky voice, tremendous charm, and impeccable comic timing by Kristin Franco. Her version of “Ice Ice Baby,” complete with pint-sized backup dancers busting a move (choreographed by Lisa Singleton), may be the highlight of the show.
Yes, you read that right: “Ice Ice Baby.” Which brings me to the music. Under the capable direction of director and musical director Charles Hoag, the 5-piece band lovingly rips off everything from Vanilla Ice to James Brown to the Pet Shop Boys to Andrew Lloyd Webber to the musicals Side Show, The Little Princess and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. This, too, is a Panto tradition — with a word changed here and there, popular songs add to the sense of comforting and amusing familiarity.
All is done according to form. As the Announcer puts it, “Audience participation is Mandatory.” The Dame and the Clown sit down for a sing-along with the children in the front rows, who scream “IT’S BEHIND YOU!” whenever a monster runs out upstage. The audience gleefully boos the villain and yells “OH NO YOU WON’T!!” every time he says, “Oh, yes I will!!!!!” about his evil plans. Awful, groan-worthy puns and shoehorned-in local references are offered up like bonbons by the doughty Dame, and actual sweets are handed out by children in the cast to children in the audience.
This is not sophisticated theater. It is corny, unironic, silly, and as delightful as the tap-dancing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Teri Allred), who shows up just for the joy of it. And with its roots in theatrical styles that made fun of the nobility, its upending of gender roles, and its utter refusal to be serious, Panto springs from the topsy-turvy, chaotic, rebellious spirit of Twelfth Night and the ancient Lord of Misrule. But mostly it is good, old-fashioned fun, which is exactly what we crave right now.
Frosted: A Traditional British Panto plays through December 16, 2018, at Kensington Town Hall. Tickets for the Friday, Dec. 14th and Saturday evening, Dec. 15th shows are still available. You can purchase them online.