The Ghent Playhouse: An unlikely cast of fairy tale characters
What do you get when you put a neon-green Spandex-clad frog, a snoring Sleeping Beauty and one cross-dressing evil fairy who takes a size 11 in killer black heels on stage? A fairy tale mash-up of classic British pantomime theater with distinctive American flare, just in time for the holidays.
The troupe of creative PantoLoons are back on stage at the Ghent Playhouse for their 14th season, bringing witty banter with a healthy dose of schtick in their latest production, "SleepFrog," -- weaving the classic tales of "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Frog Prince" into one unlikely comedy of magical errors.
"We started out trying to do a tradition British pantomime, but now at No. 14, it's very American," said Judy Staber, producer and writer of the musical, which runs 2 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Dec. 13, 14 and 2 p.m. Dec. 15 at the playhouse in Ghent, N.Y., a 30-minute drive from the Berkshires.
A community tradition since 2005 -- when the PantoLoons moved the yearly show from the Spencertown Academy Arts Center, where it began in 2000, to Ghent -- the local Panto production is seen as heralding in the holiday season, much like its British origins. Dating back to the Middle Ages, a Panto is a form of entertainment based on popular fairy tales or folk legends with a good-versus-evil theme, and often some cross-dressing fairies and princesses thrown in for a good laugh.
"In the spirit of British Pantomime we have cross dressing, but we don't have a children's chorus or live animals, thank God," said Staber, with a laugh. Staber, who not only writes the production each year with the help of director Tom Detwiler and the cast, has roots in British theater. Her mother was an actress in Pantomime theater, according to Staber who uses her authentic British accent on stage as Salubria, one of the five good fairies in the play who help -- albeit in a roundabout way -- Sleeping Beauty find her prince.
With a cast of nine, singing original lyrics to some familiar tunes, bending the rules of gender roles and the fourth wall, it's easy to imagine the chaos of creating an original production like this -- a process that begins in May each year, said Staber.
But it's a fun process that is made easier by the crew of PantoLoons, many of whom have been with the troupe since the beginning, according to Detwiler.
"There is very little ego involved here," said Detwiler, who has been with the group since it moved to the Ghent Playhouse on the corner of Route 66. "It's just a really great group of people who have been together quite a while. Everybody comes up with lines for each other or writes a lyric."
The clever one-liners and play on words are non-stop, some wiz by quickly, while others are given a comedic breath by the actors, almost winking at the audience in recognition of the fun. There's the Sleepy Beauty named Loonesta after the sleeping pill, played by tall Paul Murphy with unmistakable big hands and hairy arms that pop out of the princess' floral nightgown. Monk Schane-Lydon begins the show as the lovable, flipper-clad narrator Cassidy the Frog, whose full name, of course, is Hopalong Cassidy. Costume designer Joanne Maurer plays an impotent, important King Posterium. And three of the fab five fairies -- played by Cathy Lee-Visscher, Nellie Rustick and Sally McCarthy -- sing tight harmonies to recreated favorites like "Fairy School Dropout."
Thirty-five seperate songs anchor the show, played on a corner piano by a fairy-winged Paul Leyden, musical director of the production who also appropriately plays Fairy Musica. With fun twists on popular songs, such as the production's "Sewin' on the Singer" set to "Proud Mary," with a Tina Turner-inspired finish, ensemble work was key when creating the score, according to Leyden.
"This year we had two or three sessions in my living room where we jointly wrote the lyrics," he said. "We had a lot of fun doing it. ... I just have a ball working with them stringing the songs together."
The most challenging part of creating the script and the score was figuring out how to pass through 100 years while the cast slept off fairy-induced spell, according to both Leyden and Staber. The result is a five minute, non-stop musical interlude with dashing headlines, notorius quotes and some pop culture references.
"We start with World War I and end with twerking," Staber said.
While the costumes and silliness are fun for the whole family, the show is full of adult humor and local references. A muscular tank-top wearing Michael Meier plays Prince Phibius of Philmont who is lusted after by evil fairy Malevola, played by Detwiler who shows some surprising leg in the role as he sings "You're Just Too Big to be True," to a red-faced Meier.
"It's fun being in the fairy tale world, you can get away with a whole lot," says the director of the show, who frequently plays the evil-stepmother-type role traditionaly found in Pantos.
"I'm the old broad," he said with a chuckle.
While there is a fair amount of clever adult humor, Detwiler said it is all in good taste.
"Early in the process I often say the phrase, ‘Save that for the midnight show,' a lot ends up on the cutting floor," he said. "You can possibly imagine in a play where someone pricks their fingers, how that word can get translated into something else."
Like Staber and Leyden, Detwiler credits the PantoLoons cast with the success of the show. Most members have been with the troupe for so long that the Pantos practically write themselves after awhile, he said. Though many members are older, younger cast members have joined this year. Detwiler said he often jokes with the cast when blocking out the scenes, "If you get down on your knees, will you be able to get back up?" And asks, "Can you imagine our parents doing this at our age?"
But comedy knows no age as the PantoLoons are still going strong and hope to continue to do so for a very long time.
"It's a holiday tradition," Detwiler said. "It's now very much a playhouse production. We hope to keep going as long as we can kneel and stand up and find the right heels."
If you go ...
What: PantoLoons production of ‘SleepFrog'
When: 2 p.m., today; 8 p.m., Dec. 13 and 14; 2 p.m., Dec. 15
Where: The Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, N.Y.
Cost: All seats $20, $17 for Playhouse ‘Friends,' and $12 for children 12 and under.
For more information: For reservations, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit www.ghentplayhouse.org.
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