Do you like jokes, puns, lavish and imaginative sets, farce, and catchy music that you can dance to while you laugh? Well, then follow the breadcrumbs to Stages Repertory Theatre for Adam Howard’s Panto: Hansel and Gretel super quick—you don’t want to miss the jolly part of the holidays, now do you?
British “pantos” (short for “pantomime,” except there is a lot of speaking and the audience can cheer and hiss, depending on the character that shows up on stage) are a Christmas tradition that will often take traditional or stock roles (say, Hansel and Gretel and that greedy witch who wants to eat them!) and turn them upside down and round and round so the end result is way more fun than a traditional telling of the original tale. There's also a lot of physical comedy, and it's usually fast-paced and upbeat—even the shyest person in the world might have a hard time resisting the urge to participate in all the fun.
A key word here is “participate.” In a zippy little number led by a purple-haired fairy princess (an adorable Analia McEnelly), the audience is briefed on how to participate when heroes and villains enter and exit. The cast sings about how requiring participation is the price of the ticket, and I found their refrain—“making you uncomfortable is what we do!”—funny but true.
If we're following the lives of Hansel and Gretel, there must be a forest, and New York-based Houstonian Jenn Bobo makes her scenic design debut at Stages, with huge trees and vines and a clever range of scenic compositions for the fast-paced play. For example, when Buttons (Ryan Schwalbach) has been shut out of his traditional role in this year’s Panto, he calls his agent (cleverly played by Genevieve Allenbury, who can satirically challenge political figures from Donald Trump to Nancy Pelosi—and all in good fun). What does his agent’s office have? A rolodex and a vintage clam shell Apple Mac. I kid you not—I loved it! And of course, a magically delicious candied-up gingerbread house for any wayward children who get lost in the forest and might need a witch to make their hellish lives after being abandoned by their parents, well, how shall I say it? Worse.
Also excellent were Paige A. Willson’s wonderful costumes. Who can forget the Woodsman’s super-short shorts, or Gretel’s German-inspired St. Pauli girl get-up? Or the Generic Fairy Princess’s sequined high-heeled sneakers? Or the regional theater-obsessed mother with her leopard scarf and matchy-matchy pants and shoes? Or that Lady Pastry (Blake Jackson) that the witch orders around, with her oven mitts and French maid skirt, and hey, I know, it is just too much fun and perfectly perfect for this kind of show. And the sets and costumes meld well with the music (also by Adam Howard) and Maison Turner’s choreography—which got a lot of laughs, and that's exactly what is supposed to happen in panto—so bravo to all those twirls and grooves. No one was ever bored, and those numbers were high-energy awesomeness.
Did I mention that you can bring anyone, of any age, to this engaging show? One of the best things about Hansel and Gretel was watching all the kids get so excited and participate—but not like those other things where the parents want to slip into a coma. No, no, no. This show is fun for kids of all ages, and I mean that.
Since it is the holidays, here are a few of my favorite things—and mainly because they were surprises. First, I am still reeling from the fact that this show has Genevieve Allenbury, who is a big deal Royal Shakespearean Company actor who has also been in movies and can be seen on Netflix—lucky us! Second, newcomer Talon Broughton plays the Woodsman, but honestly, he has great comedic timing and I think he should become a country singer because I loved every number he sang. What an interesting voice! Sophia Elizabeth Clarke was so funny with her high drama queen hijinks as the evil non-stepmother, I just wanted her to keep coming on stage for another dose of her histrionics. Blake Jackson was just the best Lady Pastry that any kitchen could cook up, and in many ways, his prissy puns stole the show. But I cannot forget— as in ever—the brilliant Tamara Siler. Stages really cannot cast anyone else as a witch, because Siler is the Platonic ideal of a Panto Witch; plus, she's got some pipes, so I hope I can see her in something else where she sings and sings and sings.
Making her directorial debut, Eboni Bell has orchestrated an ambitious show that has a lot of plates spinning in the air, and none of them come crashing down. Looking around the room, you could see that the audience was engaged and entertained, and it was a good reminder of what theater can do: provide a chance for communal joy. And that is a lot to celebrate.
Runs through December 15. Tickets start at $25. Go to stagestheatre.com for more information.