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People's Light's 15th annual musical panto is a new production of its 2008 and 2013 Cinderella, written (and updated) by Kathryn Petersen with music and lyrics by Michael Ogborn. It's grown better with age.
The People's Light panto — based on the traditional English holiday panto — is an all-ages musical, telling a familiar story using broad stock characters. After 15 years — and I've seen them all — People's Light's well-crafted format forges a unique identity.
The English aspects People's Light still incorporates include the Dame — played, as always, by the inimitable Mark Lazar. He’s usually a main character's mother as well as an outspoken commentator and outrageous improviser, proudly wearing spectacular gowns.
The company also keeps "the messy scene," in which characters hilariously battle with gooey stuff. There’s a villain we're encouraged to boo. Audience volunteers are used in clever but low-risk and nonembarrassing ways. Candy always gets tossed to the audience.
These traditional facets are not gimmicks; they meaningfully help tell the story.
People's Light playfully sets their pantos in "Malvernistan," infusing them with local references for adults more than children. Cinderella's biggest opening-night laugh arrived after a perfectly timed reference to a nearby intersection with a really long red light.
Something for everybody
Cinderella begins with the Dame's funeral, handled delicately by all. Hazel Opfinder (Lazar) may have passed away but she sticks around to work the crowd and fret about husband Oliver (Tom Teti) and daughter Ella (Caroline Strang). Scheming widow Baroness Lucretia Loosestrife (Kim Carson) bullies Oliver into marriage, with her daughters Poisianna (Nicole Stacie) and Invasia (Tori Lewis) in tow.
The familiar tale provides opportunities for jaunty songs played by music director and accompanist Daniel Matarazzo and drummer Kanako Omae Neale, with vaudeville banter between Ella's animal friends Big Gus (Mary Elizabeth Scallen), Sudsy Squirrel (Susan McKey), Flea (Christian Giancaterino), and Tom Cat (Christopher Patrick Mullen), who cleverly combine animal and human characteristics.
I have three tomcats, and I think Mullen did a behavioral study of them. We've also had fleas in our house, and they're every bit as combative as Giancaterino's small-but-mighty Flea.
Petersen and Ogborn add a subplot in which the Prince (Tyler Fauntleroy) switches places with his valet (Luke Brandt) before the ball. This actually accentuates Ella's independence. She is no longer passively grateful to be chosen by a prince; since both men fall in love with her, the choice is now hers — and her decision makes a fitting 2018 surprise.
No expense spared
As usual, People's Light cuts no corners, even though some might see this as a silly show for kids. Director David Bradley is a People's Light veteran who last staged The Diary of Anne Frank. His actors are first-rate, particularly Strang's innocent-yet-wise Ella.
Carson — fresh off her 2018 Best Supporting Performance Barrymore Award win for the Arden's musical drama Fun Home — relishes the audience's boos. Teti's hapless father proves paternally perfect. Evil stepsisters Stacie and Lewis are the loudest, brattiest, funniest ever.
Rosemarie McKelvey's stunning costumes send the primary signal that Cinderella is set in the 1920s (along with the cast's Runyonesque accents). Hazel's bright, sparkly gowns — in one scene, she's a glamorous tree — and Lucretia's dark, sparkly dresses and capes are the most eye-catching, but every costume delights.
Ella's flawless transformation from dowdy dress to ball gown in one quick turn made people gasp. Even the drummer has a costume. Why is she a bear? Why not!
James F. Pyne's clever set again features a traditional gold proscenium arch and big red curtain, giving the theater an old-fashioned warmth. Mike Inwood's lighting contains many surprises, as does Stephen Casey's witty choreography.
From what I could see, the kids' attention in the audience seldom faltered, especially since actors are always running through the house. I confess, I most enjoyed references that might have gone over their heads, like Lucretia's Trumpian whine: "I am the most bullied person in the world!" They also found fun ways to spoof the Flyers' new mascot Gritty and celebrate the most famous Super Bowl play ever: the Philly Philly.
I defy anyone to leave Cinderella: A Musical Panto without a smile on their face and a skip in their step.
What, When, Where
Cinderella: A Musical Panto. Book by Kathryn Petersen, music and lyrics by Michael Ogborn, David Bradley directed. Through January 6, 2019, at the People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pennsylvania. (610) 647-1900 or peopleslight.org.
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