Credit People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern with taking the road less traveled during the holiday season. In recent years, rather than mount yet another adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the troupe has staged a panto, a centuries-old style of British children's theater.
The idea is to take a legend or fairy tale and slapstick it up for kids, with corny jokes, wildly mugging actors, a large man dressed as a woman, songs, puppets, and lots and lots of audience participation. Previous People's Light pantos have sent up Cinderella, Treasure Island, and the Robin Hood legend. This time, the legend of Camelot is the target in Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon: A Musical Panto. The humor in Samantha Bellomo and Pete Pryor's script is probably too broad for most adult sensibilities, but the show's target audience member, my eight-year-old companion Danny, pronounced the show "cool," and most of his peers on opening night clearly agreed. Case closed.
Most of the familiar elements of Arthurian legend are satirized: Young Arthur prepares to become king, mentored by Merlyn the Magician; they battle an evil sorceress; and Arthur triumphantly retrieves the sword Excalibur from the stone. This version also adds a climactic battle with a red dragon, an ingenious giant puppet (designed by Robert Smythe) manipulated by two of the actors.
As Arthur, John Mulhearn has the dazed impishness of a young Martin Short, and he ably anchors the production. Christopher Patrick Mullen's Merlyn convincingly ages backward, from doddering old magician to robust young man. Kim Carson makes a spectacular villainess as Morgana Le Fay, welcoming the audience's hisses and belting out her songs like a medieval Merman. Tall Mark Lazar once again does cross-dressing panto duty, this time as the Dame of the Lake, and he camps it up merrily.
Rounding out the cast in multiple smaller roles are Tom Teti, Susan McKey, John Jarboe, Mary Tuomanen, Alex Bechtel, Marc LeVasseur, Liz Filios, and Jake Blouch (whose strangely Spanish-accented donkey was Danny's favorite). Marie Anne Chiment's costumes are colorful and inventive, particularly the various diva gowns for the Dame of the Lake. And James F. Pyne Jr.'s sets are clever, especially in an underwater scene complete with puppet fish.
Danny did have one reservation, and I agree. At close to two hours, not including intermission, King Arthur is a bit too long. When preparing next year's panto, People's Light should heed the old vaudeville maxim: Always leave them wanting more.
Above right: Christopher Patrick Mullen and Susan McKey