People's Light & Theatre Company's 12th annual musical panto, a restaging of their 2010 hit The Three Musketeers (The Later Years), continues the raucous spirit of this English holiday form while also succeeding as a smartly produced musical.
Imagine: a large-cast musical not based on a movie or first produced on Broadway! People’s Light’s annual pantos are all homegrown, most written by Kathryn Petersen (book) and Michael Ogborn (music & lyrics).
The panto form, as adapted by PLTC, features a lot of traditional elements: the "Grand Dame" (so far always played by Mark Lazar — long live the queen!), audience participation, candy tossing, and the messy scene, in which hilarious circumstances lead to a big mess for a few characters. Family friendly humor is punctuated by ad libs to the audience, including timely local references — Sunday evening's performance referred to the Eagles' loss that afternoon — and the show promotes positive messages through a heartwarming adventure story without involving Christmas or any other religious holiday.
Morals and standards
The Three Musketeers shows us that anyone can be a hero. The title characters — really four musketeers, including D'Artagnan — are hiding in retirement, banished from "Malveria" (Malvern, get it?) to New Jersey. Evil Lord Guido Mazarotti (Pete Pryor, who also directs, with a comically mangled accent) has entranced young King Hughy (Tabitha Allen) with a "thumb machine" — basically a Renaissance Gameboy — and plans to supplant him and his mother, Queen Agnes (Lazar).
Who can stop him? Horace the Hound (Dito van Reigersberg), Henrietta the Chicken (Leah Walton), and D'Artagnan's fiancée, Colette (Meera Mohan), a barmaid, are determined to try, but first they need some musketeer training.
Part of the annual panto's success stems from PLTC's commitment to the form. The Panto is a first-rate production with an accomplished professional cast and terrific designers and artisans. Guests this year include Barrymore winner Walton (from Ogborn's musical Field Hockey Hot); Pig Iron Theatre Company co-founder and drag diva "Martha Graham Cracker" van Reigersberg; and Mum Puppettheatre founder Robert Smythe, who plays D'Artagnan. The latter also designed the show's puppets, which figure prominently in the climactic black-lit battle, choreographed by Barrymore winner Samantha Reading.
A dazzling spectacle
The physical production is superb as well. James F. Pyne's gorgeous set helps the show move briskly, lit imaginatively by Thom Weaver. Bridget Brennan's costumes, adapted from Alisa Kleckner's 2010 designs, keep the animal characters recognizably human and make the human characters bold — none more so than Lazar, whose gowns sparkle with glitter and wit.
The titular musketeers — Tom Teti as Aramis, Owen Pelesh as Athos, and Brad DePlanche as Porthos — get their opportunity to buckle their swashes, but Pelesh and DePlanche also shine in their "Hairy Barbiari" disguises as brother barbers. They pull a volunteer on stage for a fun bit, then do the messy scene, which involves lots of goo as one brother makes the other a sundae. When a character asks the audience, "Should I do it?" always yell "Yes!" He's going to do it anyway, and it's going to be wicked silly.
Lord Guido's henchpersons are sultry falcons, played by Laura Giknis, Marissa Barnathan, Susan McKey, and Katie Johantgen. They're too adorable to be scary, but their swooping entrances, announced by a screeching sound, make them worthy opponents.
Near-constant accompaniment, and some funny moments, are provided by music director Geoff Langley and drummer Kanako Omae Neale.
Some serious notes
For those who need a more serious critical analysis, consider these thoughts:
- Petersen not only showcases a positive moral without overstating it, but also references the three Alexandre Dumas novels that inspired the story. In this and other pantos, she slyly promotes reading and never talks down to the audience.
- Ogborn's songs are likewise clever and complex, while also gloriously silly. Lesser creators would copy pop hits or sample traditional songs (like a lot of animated junk for kids these days). Like Petersen, Ogborn is never condescending.
- The audience participation and ad lib bits involve adults and kids alike, and accomplished with a sensitivity that makes them fun for everyone. They're a great reminder that theatre is a live, interactive experience; a lot of new theatergoers confuse plays with movies, in which audiences are oblivious about good behavior. In the pantos, we're so involved that we're not chatting with each other or checking our phones. Like Petersen and Ogborn, Pryor the director and the entire company treat us as guests, not customers.
- Moreover, it's an original creation, produced by and for people right here. No comparisons of the musical to the movie, no costumes or sets based on toys the kids already own or will demand, no sitting in a 3,000-seat auditorium hearing everything through speakers and wishing for binoculars.
But we don't really need to think that much about it. Just enjoy.