People’s Light & Theatre Company continues its trademark tradition of holiday pantos—a British genre of winter musical comedies based in classic folk stories and incorporating current references, audience participation, and candy for everyone!–with the world premiere of ARTHUR AND THE TALE OF THE RED DRAGON. The original family friendly entertainment, with more than enough adult humor to keep the grown-ups happy, takes a wacky look at the growing pains of the future King Arthur as he faces the challenges of life, learning, and leadership.
Written by director Pete Pryor and choreographer Samantha Bellomo, with music and lyrics by Michael Ogborn (the trio behind the company’s popular Aladdin panto of 2012), the hilarious medievalizing spectacle (set “far ago and long away”) includes colossal dragon puppetry by Robert Smythe, menacing multi-layered reptilian roars by sound designer Michael Hahn, and wonderful sets (James F. Pyne, Jr.) and lighting (Lily Fossner) of bucolic landscapes, underwater seascapes, and secret dungeons. A zany ensemble of twelve actors, decked out in dazzling costumes by Marie Anne Chiment, portray the array of magical beings, fantastic creatures, knights in armor, and a Dame (a stock panto character of a male actor in drag) encountered by the young Arthur (here nicknamed Wart—as in a growth) as he is mentored by the wizard Merlyn to accept his royal destiny and his quest to fight for the good of the fictional land of Nrevlam against the evil sorceress Morgana and the Red Dragon she controls.
Because the story is told in “Medieval panto time,” everything from Star Wars to Shakespeare to Elvis is thrown into the comic mix, and Merlyn (the terrific and almost unrecognizable Christopher Patrick Mullen) grows younger, more agile, and less grizzled as the show progresses (paralleling the reverse spelling of Malvern as Nrevlam). The entire cast is first-rate, with many assuming multiple roles and funny accents (Jake Blouch is a scream as the talking Antonio the Burro), and all displaying perfect comedic timing and delivering strong vocal performances, with live music-hall-style accompaniment by music director Ryan Touhey on piano and Kanako Omae Neale on drums.
The stunning Kim Carson as the deliciously diabolical dominatrix Morgana Le Fay dominates the stage with her show-stopping rendition of “Torture Is a Girl’s Best Friend” and relishes all the hisses and boos her villainous deeds elicit from the audience (you don’t have to worry about the kids—they’ll just think she’s gorgeous, weird, and creepy!). John Jarboe and Mary Tuomanen perform double duty, playing the now arthritic but still competitive knights Pellinore and Grummor, who laughably fail to remove the sword Excalibur from the stone, and skillfully operating the body and head of the enormous dragon. Liz Filios is adorable as the ever-swimming Torch Angler the Fish and the inconstant Guenever to Marc LeVasseur’s raffish Lancelot. Rounding out the exceptional ensemble are Jon Mulhearn as the easily confused Wart, Alex Bechtel as his brother Kay (the thwarted heir-apparent to the throne), and long-time panto veterans Tom Teti as their father Sir Ector, Susan McKey as Merlyn’s wise hoot owl Archimedes, and Mark Lazar as Nessie, the buxom and flirtatious Dame of the Lake.
Kudos to the whole team at People’s Light for honoring their “love of history, humor, and humanity” by giving audiences this delightful holiday erusaert (that’s a treasure in Merlyn time, and at any time). [Leonard C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA] November 19, 2014-January 11, 2015; peopleslight.org.