REVIEW: Stages Riffs on Tradition with Innovative One-Man Panto
If you've ever been lucky enough to see any versions of Stages’s pantos, then you know how entertaining they can be.
These shows have a fascinating history: As the program explains, the British pantomime “traces its roots … back to Greek and Roman times, incorporating elements of commedia dell’arte, harlequinade, and vaudeville … characterized by a combination of song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, topical reference, and audience participation.”
My, that is quite a list for one show. But somehow it can really come together, and even though these shows tend to be geared toward kids, I was laughing my head off at the last in-person show I saw. What can I say? It is easy to get caught up in the fun.
But now that Covid-19 is on the scene, everything has changed, and, gosh, I am impressed with how Stages has adapted to these challenging conditions. This year’s Buttons’ Sleeping Beauty: A One-Man Outrageous Unbelievable Covid Lockdown Panto insists—both in the riff on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale and the actual logistics of the production itself—that the show must go on.
Theaters don’t just have to adjust to local and state laws; they also have their own professional union regulations that have certain prohibitions to protect actors and crews. But Stages has adapted what would usually be a 15-person cast with a live, participating audience into a virtual live-streamed and on-demand one-man show (with a special appearance from, ahem, the Queen). What a gift to Houston to figure out how to deliver this traditional show, no matter the obstacles!
Ryan Schabach is playing the impish Buttons for the 11th time, and he is perfect for the part—I mean, parts. I’ve admired him since seeing his Hamlet in 2013’s Wittenberg, but having to play all these characters, with different accents no less, and operate puppets is a task. Playing Buttons isn’t for the faint of heart. He even sings in the musical numbers. And his moment as the English teacher in drag was so hilarious and campy, it was my favorite part of the show. It had a Rocky Horror Picture Show-meets-British comedy vibe that I thought was terrific.
Genevieve Allenbury, who has been in many of Stages’s past pantos, gave a fantastic performance as Queen Elizabeth, even as she was being beamed in from London. She is a natural comedienne and was perfectly cast as the monarch, who launches the mission for Buttons to create a panto in record time.
The set was also a feat. I think credit for this goes to artistic director Kenn McLaughlin, who also was scenic designer. Oh, how I loved the chaos of Buttons’s room, with so much stuff in it that it boggled the mind. It was like Stages took every prop in the building and put it in this room: everything from Bear food, to pink chiffon and gold disco shoes, plus lots of stuff you might have in your own closet or garage. The details are fascinating, and, trust me, everything is necessary. Plus, we can’t overlook Tiffani Fuller Bonds’s fantastic costumes. Call me literal-minded, but I adore that every one of Buttons’s outfits has buttons all over it. Even his pajamas. Some of those button-covered jackets, well, at moments I definitely thought I would so wear that.
Buttons' Covid Lockdown Panto is like a five-ring circus—but in a good way. I don’t know how director Leslie Swackhamer did it, but her coordination with David Nehls, Stages’s music director, and Peter Ton, director of cinematography, is mind-blowing. I mean, they took a stage production and turned it into a stage production-musical-movie. And there are all of those puppets. If I were a director and I had to deal with puppets, I’d quit, so bravo to Jodi Bobrovsky, Stages’s properties designer and puppet master.
To be clear, this isn’t your grandparents’ Sleeping Beauty. Instead, we have a fun riff on an old tale, some cute allusions to Houston and its suburbs, and even a reflective moment on how nothing is how it should be right now. But Stages’s panto proceeds anyway, and maybe that is the best part of all.
Dec 15–27. $25. Online. More info and tickets at stagestheatre.com.