Cinderella, a Panto by Judy Staber and the Loons Directed by Tom Detwiler
The Uglies: Ron Harrington (Bagatha Chrispa), Tom Detwiler (Baroness Hardcastle), Rick Rowsell (Hagnes Demure)
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Judy Staber and friends are at it again at the Ghent Playhouse and, frankly, the humor and the mirth they spread is exactly what you need to start this celebratory, joyous season. The story is a classic: Cinderella. Their take on the tale is what makes it such a delicious experience.
If you’ve never seen a "Panto", an old English holiday tradition, you may not know what to expect. Well, simply put, parody, cross-dressing or travesty, political humor, song lyrics designed to fit into existing tunes you already can hum and a slightly altered perception of the characters you love or hate, make up the core of Panto. There is no "mime" attached, just outragreously bad jokes that make you laugh anyway and the fun of participating in something unique and wonderful. Suspend all your ideas about what a musical is, what theater is about; this is not that. This is Panto.
To make it easier for their audiences they open with a song called "That’s a Panto". Set to the tune of the old Dean Martin hit, "That’s Amore," you can easily sing along while learning the basics of what’s to come and your part in it. After that its every man, woman and child, for him or herself.
The characters. Well, this is Cinderella, after all, so the heroine is pretty easy to identify...or is she? Cathy Lee Visscher takes on the seventeen year old and makes her oddly believable, even in her more Valley Girl moments. She looks great, sings beautifully and has a way of being rude to those who want to help her that even startles those nice characters. Visscher is a joy to watch and hear (and her hair looks great!)
As her Fairy Godmother we have the divine Ms. Staber herself, Doyenne of the Panto. Yes, she admits, it’s the same dress she wore the last time she played the part, and yes, it’s the same wig too. Still, as she tells us from behind her drooping wand, "Nobody Loves a Fairy." And yes, she’s just as good, just as much fun and just as right in her solo songs as could be.
Tom Detwiler plays Baroness Hardcastle, the evil stepmother, with so much style and fortitude you’d think it was Joan Crawford come back to life. As her two ugly daughters, Bagatha Chrispa played by Ron Harrington and Hagnes Demure played by Rick Rowsell, the competition for the ugliest woman on any regional stage is definitely on. All three are hilarious and, frighteningly, almost believable in their roles. They capture three consecutive songs (All We Need is an Evening Dress//When Mama Re-Married//I Feel Ugly) and control the stage for much longer than they can control the Prince. Heaven help them at the cast party!!
Sally McCarthy is Prince V Charming (I won’t tell you what the V is for - you’ll have to find out for yourself) and Johnna Murray is Major Domo. Together or apart, in solos or duets - including "Your Feets Too Big," these two could almost carry the show themselves. They are just super in their male roles.
Joanne Maurer is King Mum (remember Queen’s Elizabeth’s mother, the Queen Mum) and Paul Murphy is Queen Blair ("you look so tony, Blair" the King says at one point - yes, that the level of the humor). A better pair of royals never existed, even if the Queen is right out of Greenpoint, Brooklyn and the King is almost as stupid as his dog ("Here, King. Here, King.").
And finally, there’s the chimney sweep - and confidante to Cinderella - Dusty Grimes played by Walter Bauer. He’s terrific in a role that only adds a tiny bit of dirt, and a smidgeon hint of smut, to the proceedings. Just how long have he and Cinderella been consorting inside that chimney after all?
Paul Leyden is the music director, playing the twenty musical numbers and an overture. I won’t tell you anything more about his on-stage personna - that you MUST see for yourself. Tom Detwiler has directed this romp with flair (not Blair) and the sets and costumes by cast members work beautifully. Ian Gulliver does his usual fine job with the lights and, even though the program says the script is by Staber (with input from everyone) it is her sense of humor that carries the evening so well.
I urge you to see this, and to get into that festive spirit the season demands. There won’t be anything like it around these parts again – until next year at this time, I hope and pray.
◊ 12-03-06 ◊
Cinderella plays at the Ghent Playhouse through December 10. For performances times and reservations call 518-392-6264. The Ghent Playhouse is just off Route 66 in Ghent, New York.