People's Light and Theatre Company's 13th annual holiday panto, Sleeping Beauty: A Musical Panto, expands the form that the Malvern theater has made its own. It demonstrates yet again that family-friendly fare can be smart and creative, deserves fully professional resources, and shares themes that are inspiring for all.
Most important, though, it's rousing good fun.
A familiar tale, translated
Co-authors Pete Pryor (who also directs) and Samantha Reading (who also choreographs), along with composer and lyricist Alex Bechtel, balance the familiar story with many new twists. Some of their innovations fulfill panto traditions — both those maintained from the original British form, and new ones established by People's Light — but many make the story more fresh and relevant. For example, no longer is the charmed princess' fate dependent on a man’s actions.
Ariana Sepúlveda plays dynamic teenage astronomer Aurora, whose father, the king (Tom Teti), has banned music in Paoli Shoals (use of local town names is a panto staple) to protect her from an evil spell. That spell was cast by Chanteuse, played by Kim Carson as a droll '80s Cockney rock superstar, who’s “bad just because.” Her former singing partner is Mark Lazar's traditional Dame character, now Aurora's guardian angel.
Aurora's friends include Sam Slug (Josh Totora), Kerri Crane (Emily Kay Lynn), and Mudbug (Brendan Norton), animals that play instruments and are Chanteuse's reluctant back-up band. They also know Boy (Luke Bradt), whose ogre mother (Hanna Van Sciver) taught him "self-reliance through abandonment." Susan McKey is a hillbilly junk dealer named Aunt Tikki (think about it) with a secret identity.
A companion story folds neatly into Aurora's, featuring Tabitha Allen as the moon and Abigail Brown as an adorable star. Allen’s moon is surprised she can "simultaneously be humanity's source of inspiration and of madness." Both are celestial bodies that have fallen to Earth and need help. Van Sciver cleans off her ogre-green makeup to play the sun for one great number.
Sleeping Beauty has all the kid-tickling silliness we've come to expect at People's Light, including the interactive traditions. Children are invited onstage to dance, characters roam the aisles with candy, Lazar's Dame flirts with men, characters throw goo in the slapstick "messy" scene, and everyone is invited to cheer, boo, and sing along. The shenanigans are nonstop. For example, every time someone calls Aurora "Princess," a fanfare plays — until she walks to the pit and unplugs music director Thomas Fosnocht's keyboard.
Little comedic gifts for adults may sail over the kids' heads, but they don't slow the show's bouncy pace. Many producers would avoid references to Oedipus, Hamlet, Marilyn Monroe, James Bond, and Katrina and the Waves in a family show, but People's Light doesn't condescend to young audiences by watering down their material.
The design work, first-rate as always for the panto, includes Roman Tatarowicz’s charming set, which employs the traditional proscenium arch and red curtain but also contains many fun surprises, lit with verve by Paul Hackenmueller. Nikki Delhomme’s costumes subtly define each animal character, and make Moon and Star whimsical. Bechtel’s songs, punctuated with samples from familiar tunes (yes, Sun enters to a riff from The Beatles’s “Here Comes the Sun”), are accompanied by the cast on a variety of instruments, Fosnocht’s keyboard, and Kanako Omae Neale’s drums.
I can’t help but marvel at how People’s Light concocts an all-ages, large-cast, full-length original musical nearly every year that builds on its predecessors’ tropes, honors the classic British form, and, although always based on a familiar children’s tale, feels entirely new. When we consider the many mediocre Broadway musicals that just replicate well-known movies, People’s Light’s achievement with Sleeping Beauty, and the risk involved, is even more amazing.