All Things Entertaining and Cultural
“Cinderella: A Musical Panto” at People’s Light from now into January, scores big on all counts. Kathryn Petersen and Michael Ogborn turn the Grimm classic into a murder mystery, establishing a villain the panto audience can hiss and boo while adroitly eliciting laughs via smart verbal comebacks, appropriately snide comments about Congressional stagnation and Obamacare, sharp and witty characterization, and a marvelous silent film chase sequence designed by Jorge Cousineau and featuring a Chaplinesque Christopher Patrick Mullen and a lithely suave Jeffrey Coon.
Within Ogborn’s score are wonderful musical jokes including classical passages that have come to signal intrigue or romance and a witty use of the opening bars of “Why Would a Fellow Want a Girl Like Her?” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” The tuneful bons mots are treats that augment Ogborn’s lively, funny assortment of songs and background accompaniment. They are played with panache by Ryan Touhey.
Petersen has written a piece that incorporates all the best traditions of panto, a holiday staple in Britain, while also drawing on screwball comedies and movie musicals of the 1930s (although her “Cinderella” is set in the ’20s) to provide constantly shrewd merriment. Her borrowing of one decade’s entertainment style to highlight an earlier time is more than pardonable. It gives Petersen all the more fodder to work with and lovingly parody. It allows flapper dresses, cigarette holders, gangster accents, and slaps at the idiocy of Prohibition while setting Coon and Mullen, playing the Prince and his valet, loose as a Fred Astaire-Eric Blore combination that exponentially heightens the overall fun. Smart! Very, very smart!
Petersen plays tribute to several aspects of several “Cinderellas.” She takes her basic story from the Grimms, that of a girl, Cinderella, mistreated by a stepmother who dominates the girl’s father and shows preference to her daughters while the girl enjoys the preference of a marriage-seeking prince. She throws in elements from Disney, such as a troupe of resourceful talking animals who engineer or salvage important plot complications, and a soupcon from Rodgers and Hammerstein, namely a touch of romance. Petersen adds deftly accomplished layers to the proceedings via a mistaken identity gambit and devises a mystery surrounding who killed Cinderella’s mother. As Ogborn does with music, Petersen liberally sprinkles references to plays and movies within her script. Lines from sources ranging from Shakespeare or “The Elephant Man” to Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” are detected. The nod to Williams is especially perfect, someone calling Cinderella by bellowing her given name, Ella, as “Ellllllllllllaaaaahhhh,” in the style Marlon Brando patented more than 65 years ago. Tom Teti is the actor assigned to the task, and he accomplishes it with aplomb, pitching it somewhere between Brando’s plaintive cry and Carol Burnett’s Tarzan yell.
Everything in “Cinderella: a Musical Panto” works. The show is a constant delight on several levels and has equal appeal to adults and children. In some ways, although Pete Pryor’s PLT production includes interaction with the children in the audience, it pays more attention to amusing adults. Heaven bless it, and Pryor, Ogborn, and Petersen for that.
So much in a show like this “Cinderella” depends on timing and the ability of actors to establish a core of reality while being essentially silly and playing broadly to the house as much as to each other. Pryor’s cast at People’s Light hits every mark. To a person, they mine all the comedy and vaudeville from Petersen and Ogborn’s creation. High style and purposely haughty language combine smoothly with low physical antics in a way that shows the intelligence of the conception and writing and the professionalism of the PLT troupe. The only scene that went on too long or taxed patience was one in which the two stepdaughters fight and give Cinderella a cleaning chore that might prevent her from attending the ball and having access to the Prince.
Kim Carson may have the hardest task among the actors. As Cinderella, she alone plays a relatively conventional and straightforward human character. Though mourning her mother, wondering why her father remarried, and coping with the abuse of her stepfamily, Carson’s Cinderella always takes a mature stance. She is inclined to understand situations and resigned to deal with the reality of them until something happens to rescue her from the most demoralizing parts of her plight. Carson’s is a grounded, stoic Cinderella, in ways the smartest and sweetest character on stage. Carson plays the part with dimension a panto rarely calls for. Her ingenuous genuineness endears her to the audience. She does not complain or whine. She accepts her lot and gets down to business, at times expressing sadness or contempt, but always relying on her common sense, optimism, and general cheerfulness to see her through. Carson shows the right comic reserve when communing with her stepsisters and the right parrying skills when talking to the Prince, Aiden, or his valet, Barnaby.
Carson’s is a good solid performance that anchors the show. She’s like Mary Tyler Moore, a beacon of normality and sanity amid a bevy of madcaps, and she has Moore’s knack for standing out among the flashier characters and making her story the most important of the lot.
Christopher Patrick Mullen is sensational as Barnaby. He dances with rubber-limbed aplomb that can turn on a dime into genteel elegance. He veers between Charlie Chaplin and Eric Blore with stunning abandon in a comic turn that goes beyond assured and entertaining to deliciously and deliberately over the top.
Where did this come from? Mullen has been a trusty member of Philadelphia’s acting corps for a long time, and he has had his share of triumphs, but nothing he’s done would have predicted this giving over entirely to a silly yet sophisticated role. Earlier this year, Mullen was lackluster in Arden’s “A Little Night Music” and standard at best in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s “Henry VIII.” His Barnaby runs a gamut of acting requirements that Mullen fulfills with vim and imagination. Maybe he needs to be given more slapstick and fewer leading roles. He was a wily prelate in “Henry,” but in “Cinderella,” Mullen lets himself go is a way that is simultaneously admirable and adorable. He is the comic star of Pryor’s production, and I hope the freedom and fun he gives to Barnaby infuses his future performances.
Describing the hundred bits, quirks, physical moves, hesitations, and verbal flights that compose Mullen’s masterful performance would take an article of its own. The best part is he is never self-conscious and never pushes the comedy. His work is complicated yet seems effortless. His timing, mannerisms, and physicality are all impeccable, so laughs are elicited and never forced.
Mullen has a few partners in crime, but most of his scenes are played opposite Carson and Jeffrey Coon.
Coon, coming off a bravura performance in the Arden production of “Parade,” displays his gifts once again as the Prince, who for a while pretends to be his valet so as to meet people on terms that might be more relaxing to them.
Like Mullen, Coon has to show a lot of range. He must have the dignity and breeding of a royal, the confidence of a playboy, the wit to convince in his disguise as the valet, the sincerity to appreciate and woo Cinderella, and the abandon to let all sophistication fall by the wayside and be as broadly comic as Mullen.
Coon manages the feat. He is an assured leading man who descends easily to slapstick. In addition to all he brings to Pryor’s production as an actor, he is a magnificent singer and does a great job with all Ogborn’s score demands of him. This includes conveying everything from worldly jadedness to razzmatazz Jolsonesque song and dance vitality.
One staple of the panto is the “dame,” a larger-than-life woman played a by a man. I have seen stars as lustrous as Ian McKellen play the dame, and only a few years ago with his reputation as an unparalleled theater artist under his belt.
In “Cinderella: A Musical Panto,” the dame is Cinderella’s late mother who, it turns out, was murdered. In addition to appearing in this maternal role, the dame plays a tree Ella plants to commemorate her Mom, this tree also acting as a fairy godmother of sorts.
Mark Lazar has a field day in the part. He can go from playing Hazel the mother and Hazel the tree to “Hairspray’s” Edna Turnblad in a flash. With his deep voice and big frame wrapped in Rosemarie McKelvey’s witty and sumptuous costumes, Lazar is a commanding and amusing presence. His touch with his roles is as light and amusing as his presence is huge. You can tell Lazar is having fun within his wigs and dresses, and the good time he is enjoying is contagious.
Joilet Harris has the task of playing the villainous stepmother and does so in style, taking the audience’s boos, sometimes coaxed by other actors, in her stride. Harris is known for her big, fine voice, and Ogborn gives her opportunity to display it with majesty.
Although her part has serious moments, you can tell Harris is having as much fun being falsely friendly and connivingly nasty as the more congenial characters are having with their roles.
Susan McKey seems to take on size and grandeur as she plays the more selfish of the stepsisters, or at least the one who believes she deserves the most whether she puts out any effort or not. Leah Poyo has her comic moves down as the more awkward, more forward, and more raunchily vampish of the sisters.
Liz Filios, Alex Bechtel, Josh Totora, and Jillian Shea Spaeder are a constant delight as Cinderella’s barnyard friends, respectively a squirrel, a cat, a rat, and a flea. Shea Spaeder, who is a fifth grader and looks closer to five than ten in McKelvey’s ingenious flea get-up, is especially winning for the professional sheen she gives her performance.
Tom Teti, the dean of Philadelphia actors, one who has played every kind of role imaginable, and all with distinction, is as adept in the broad comic role of Cinderella’s father as he is in Shakespeare or Pirandello. As with Coon, McKey, and Filios, it is a pleasure to see someone capable of giving grand, moving performances be at home and so entertaining in a comedy that aims first and foremost for farce.
James F. Pyne’s versatile set suits the various purposes “Cinderella” requires. His idea for the stepsisters’ bedroom is inspired, dividing the bed and everything else in the room in the pink and lime green shades that match the costumes the sisters wear, thereby showing you who sleeps where, etc.
Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes are often the cherry on top of the sundae, always witty and always right for the character and the occasion. Her trick for turning Cinderella’s simple frock into a stylish golden ball gown astounds. Her flapper outfits for the stepsisters are at once accurate and hysterical. The drapery for Lazar’s dame is exquisite while being fun.
Samantha Bellomo’s dances says 1920s and often ask the cast to go into some complex steps. Christopher Patrick Mullen in particular shows how smartly one can cut one of Bellomo’s rugs.
The film sequence involving Coon and Mullen is one more bon bon in a cornucopia of delights. Jorge Cousineau’s timing and staging of the footage blends perfectly with the live action on stage. The actors have and provide a good time following Cousineau’s Mack Sennett-like cues.
“Cinderella: A Musical Panto” runs through Sunday, January 12 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (just south of the intersection of Routes 30 and 401), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Some 7 p.m. Sunday shows are set. A 7 p.m. show is set for Wednesday, Nov. 27. No shows are scheduled for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, or Christmas. A special holiday schedule ensues at the end of December with shows set for 12 and 4:30 p.m. from Thursday, Dec. 26 to Sunday, Dec. 29 (with only 12 p.m. shows on Monday, Dec. 23, Friday, Dec. 27, Tuesday, Dec. 31, and Wednesday, Jan. 1). Tickets range from $50 to $40 with discounts for youths. They can be ordered by calling 610-644-3500 or going online to www.peopleslight.org.