All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Watching Christopher Patrick Mullen laboring back and forth across the People’s Light stage wrestling with a dragon’s tail sets up the farcical silliness of Michael Ogborn’s latest panto, “Arthur and the Tale (or tail?) of the Red Dragon” with a book by director Pete Pryor and jill of all trades, Samantha Bellomo.
Mullen, playing Merlyn, a character who ages in reverse, is a delight throughout. Panto is his metier. For the second year in a row, Mullen proves himself an instinctive comedian with a gift for sprightly dancing.
Would that Pryor and Bellomo’s book was so nimble!
“Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon,” is a lighthearted telling of how a squire called Wart turned out to be the one person in all of England, in all of the world, who could pull a specific sword, “Excalibur,” from a stone and become the King of England and a pillar of civilization whose story has entertained for generations.
Pryor and Bellomo include all the best elements of the Arthur legend, using T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” and bits of Mallory and Tennyson and others in the bargain. They blessedly avoid the Lancelot-Guenever boondoggle, although it is alluded to, Lancelot being portrayed with exaggerated egotism by Marc LeVasseur. Merlyn prophesies Arthur’s triumph before he is bewitched by Morgana Le Fay, knights joust, John Jarboe’s Pellinore shows his dotage, and Alex Bechtel makes Sir Kay, the one who thinks he should be king, an amusing cross between a Main Line swell and a Valley Boy.
Much is funny, and Ogborn’s score is as happy and bright any holiday season could hope to be, but “Arthur” goes on a bit too long for its own good. It runs out of ideas and steam, possibly because it continues for 10 or more minutes after its main matters have been settled. It also pulls a major punch that smacks of 21st century Hollywood goodness and is cloying beyond belief , desire, or good storytelling. Even in an ain’t-we-sweet Obama era musical aimed at children.
Quick, someone, my insulin!!!
Or a barf bag.
The switcheroo concerns the dragon, who gets billing in the title but is actually a minor entity in Pryor and Bellomo’s play. The beast is constructed creatively, the smoke it emits is impressive, and its red eyes provide an ominous touch to set designer James F. Pyne, Jr.’s proscenium arch, but it comes and goes sporadically and without triggering much derring-do or adventure. Ultimately, it seems included to lend a moment of treacly soppiness to “Arthur’s” ending. I don’t know about you, but I want dragons to be dragons, dangerous creatures that terrorize towns and need slaying by a hero. I could accept a different point of view if it was foreshadowed better or presented more logically and dramatically.
Pryor and Bellomo just want to be nice and good. Well, Santa can visit them. I’ll gladly cope with my ration of coal for jeering at their sentimentality.
And jeer I do. Because it’s obvious the writers want pats on the heads for striking a blow against discrimination of dragons. So what if that leaves nothing for Arthur to do that matters much as king?
Oh, yes, he will unify England and keep the feuding knights and lords from being violently feudal and warring with each other every five seconds with the least provocation.
One must say that is worth something. Borrowing from the panto’s permission to be topical, a Chief Executive and Congress that could act in accord to conduct business sensibly would be laudable. Too bad Winston Churchill is dead, and Angela Merkel isn’t American.
But I digress. And stoop to doing something I usually avoid, thinking about politics or, worse, politicians! I’ll tell you. That dragon gambit set my teeth on edge. It was so quickly and obsequiously thrown in.
In general, “Arthur” begins with the spunk of most People’s Light pantos. Mullen sets a merry pace and tone with his first entrance. Jon Mulhearn’s Arthur is of a loveable stamp. Bechtel’s Sir Kay stays at the right level of humor. Susan McKey, Liz Filios, Jake Blouch, and LeVasseur are quite entertaining as an owl, a fish, a Spanish-accented burro, and an antlered stag, animals that either advise Merlyn (McKey’s owl) or teach Arthur about nature, in keeping with White’s story.
Marie Ann Chiment provided wonderful plumage for McKey’s character, Archimedes. Her design should be the model for all instances in which actors are called on to play birds. Chiment’s wit and inventiveness are visible throughout Pryor’s production and seems to inspire the performers mentioned to be as admirably diverting.
So, for a while “Arthur” proceeds with a gleeful charm and sense of fun that radiates from Ogborn’s score and permeates Pryor’s cast, the so far unmentioned Tom Teti and Mary Tuomanen included. (Don’t worry Mark Lazar and Kim Carson. I’m saving you for later.) The story of Arthur extracting the sword from the stone is a pleasant and involving one, and the People’s Light troupe has the right spirit for a piece that is meant to be light flapdoodle.
The problem is one of tension. While a lot happens that is comic and has you smiling amiably, nothing really moves the plot. The idea that England needs a leader never really takes hold. A jousting tournament to determine a possible king doesn’t grip as a serious competition. The raft of characters clutter the plot line and make Arthur one of the ensemble rather than a focal figure you’re compelled to watch. Talented singing and dancing certainly capture your attention and cause delight, but there’s nothing to draw you into the story. You aren’t convinced that Arthur or anyone needs a sword, let alone one as mystical and magical as Excalibur, a word that is whispered with reverence by the cast in general every time it is mentioned.
Pryor and Bellomo put out all the time-honored panto tricks. The cast asks questions of the children and is quite deft, Lazar in particular, at trading badinage with the audience and reacting to potentially funny responses. Candy is liberally tossed to kids and adults alike. One unlucky goot is pulled up from the audience for a silly bit. People’s Light knows the panto traditions and practices them well.
But nothing gives “Arthur” texture. With the dragon peripheral to begin with — A few steam-spewing snorts and a pair of red eyes bulging from the sides of the stage don’t create panic or suspense — and neutralized by the sugariest of gimmicks, there’s nothing to foment the kind of danger Merlyn, Kay, Arthur, or some leader has to address. “Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon” is only half-realized. The red dragon doesn’t even lurk somewhere that makes anyone in Arthur’s midst mildly nervous, let alone petrified. Pryor and Bellomo’s pageant of niceness wears off. We become accustomed to the characters and Chiment’s glorious handiwork. We need something to bite into, a story, and one that appeals to adults as winningly as it attracts children, as the best of the People’s Light pantos have done.
“Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon” proves all to soon to be minor league. Mullen’s frisky performance can’t save it. Nor can Mulhearn’s adorable approach to Arthur or McKey and company’s menagerie of tutors. The production dissolves into the matter-of-fact. It never becomes boring or dull, but it doesn’t excite. Before it reaches its conclusion, you want it to end.
“Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon” lacks dash. Mullen starts it off as energetically and entertainingly as anyone can, but the production never develops in a way that engrosses.
Even the panto convention of the dame, a man obviously in drag who plays a significant role, only casually diverts. Don’t blame Mark Lazar. He has a ball playing his character, the Dame of the Lake, and raises the liveliness of “Arthur” by several degrees. The problem is the dame is not significant. She seems included to sustain the tradition of having a dame. Pryor and Bellomo don’t integrate her into the play in a way that matters. Lazar becomes the comic relief. He adds to the occasion with his own joy at bringing the dame to life. But the Dame of the Lake just does not fit meaningfully into the play in general. You wonder at her purpose. She seems gratuitous.
Hope springs when Kim Carson makes her entrance as the nefarious Morgana Le Fay. Here is a character with some feistiness, some bite. Her intentions may not be the most admirable, but they give “Arthur” its only semblance of edge. Pryor and Bellomo never involves you too much with all that Morgana is doing, even considering her capturing and immobilizing of Merlyn, but Carson becomes her own show with what amounts to a star turn including a witty Ogborn song and some snappy dialogue. Carson even asks the audience if they remember “Cinderella” from last year and the beautiful actress who played the title role, an actress who happened to be Carson.
Carson revels in Morgana’s naughtiness. She takes an panto convention and enlivens it. She gives you someone and something to watch. No matter how good anyone else in the cast is — and talent is hardly “Arthur’s” downfall — Carson is the only one, besides Mullen pulling the dragon’s tail, who provides a sequence that stops the show and gives it the intensity and show business savvy it so sorely needs.
All of a sudden, you feel as if you’re watching an act. Carson speaks her lines with the right touch of venom. She is evil in a way that is likeable, if only because Arthur and his gang seems like such simps, and Morgana has flair, style, and a big personality. She is even more entertaining than Blouch’s donkey that sounds like Desi Arnaz. Carson endows Morgana with sophistication that was an integral part of “Cinderella” last year when Carson’s heroine shared the weight of the production with Lazar’s villainous dame, Mullen’s fool of a diplomat, and Jeffrey Coon’s comic prince.
Except that it would not be in good taste given “Arthur’s” plot, you would root for Morgana because she’d be more entertaining than Arthur to have around.
The lack of real event derives from the inert nature of that dragon. It isn’t so much that Pryor and Bellomo alter the notion of a dragon’s role in fairy tales. They’re welcome to do that. It’s the almost capricious way they managed the deed. They didn’t prepare their audience for a friendly change. They ignored the dragon beyond effects for most of their musical — Maybe the dragon should have a number about its sentiments. — and spring their exercise in amity with no underpinnings to back it up. The decision they made as authors seems to come out of nowhere. That’s why it cloys. It’s goodness for goodness sake. (See, I can cloy too.) So while I may opt for a more traditional dragon, one that shows Arthur’s mettle and permits him the opportunity to show he can defend his kingdom, I’d have gone with Pryor and Bellomo’s idea if it had been plotted more gracefully, more in a way that makes what happens a possible, or even expected, conclusion rather than a hey-get-this bid for mythical monster beatitude.
Jon Mulhearn is boyishly cute as Arthur, a lad who would be content to be a squire and doesn’t look particularly forward to monarchy. He moves and sings with explosive charm and finds a self-effacing tone for Arthur that is the right kind of sweet.
Jake Blouch is a lot of fun as the vain, sensitive burro who expects Arthur to appreciate the lessons he’s teaching and not to be taken for granted as just any old ass. You can tell Blouch likes his character’s Spanish accent and his opportunities to upbraid Arthur for not paying attention.
Susan McKey’s Archimedes truly conveys wisdom. Liz Filios is pert as the fish who teaches Arthur about the sea, and she is delightful as Guenever, who is given a fine song and some moments to shine as an individual.
Marc LeVasseur shows overweaning ego as Lancelot and is agile as the stag who instructs Arthur in the ways of the woods. Tom Teti is a fine Sir Ector, the elder of the kingdom who has hopes for his son, Kay, but is not totally unhappy when his ward, Arthur, is anointed king.
Alex Bechtel makes Kay into a peacock of sorts who acts as if he deserves to be lauded for all of his virtues, talents, and suave ways. This is a noble who would be at home on any Main Line golf course or tennis court. He has the upper class accent with jock posture and attitude to prove it. John Jarboe is aptly doddering as Pellinore. Mary Tuomanen is his match as another aging knight, Sir Grummer. The two also operate Robert Smythe’s lithe red dragon.
I keep saying Arthur is needed to rule England. Inaccurate me! The kingdom depicted in “Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon” is the medieval Pantoland of Nrevlam, which you might notice in Malvern spelled and pronounced backwards.
James F. Pyne’s clever set has many medieval touches while being versatile and allowing lots of playing space and, when required, roving room for the dragon. Ryan Touhey is a regular whirlwind zipping off Ogborn’s score at the piano. He is abetted by Kanako Omae Neale on drums. I think Touhey and Neale each lose 10 pounds during each performance. Their energy and virtuosity is non-stop.
“Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon” runs through Sunday, January 11, at People’s Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401 just north of Route 30), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No show is scheduled for Christmas, Dec. 25, but a 2 p.m. matinee is set for New Year’s Day, Jan. 1. No show is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 5. Sunday evening shows at 7 p.m. are set for Dec. 28 and Jan. 11. Additional 2 p.m. matinees are available on Tuesday, Dec. 23, Friday, Dec. 26, Tuesday, Dec. 30, and Friday, Jan. 2. The Christmas Eve show, Dec. 24, is scheduled for 12 noon. New Year’s Eve performances, Dec. 31, are set for 12 noon and 5 p.m. Tickets range from $60 to $40 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org.