BWW Reviews: Right Out of a Children's Book in Imaginary Beasts' Winter Panto Production of RUMPELSTILTSKIN
I am generally not someone who is drawn to children. I have friends who always stop on the street to point out adorable babies and jump at the chance to babysit for older siblings or friends, but I have never quite felt the urge. But I must admit there is something incredibly special about watching a child become wholeheartedly captivated, particularly when it is by a piece of theatre. This weekend I experienced a great deal of childhood wonder and excitement at Imaginary Beasts's Winter Panto 2014 production of Rumpelstiltskin.
A panto, I have learned, is a British tradition of a winter musical comedy for the whole family, incorporating a well known children's story, musical numbers, and vaudeville humor. This production, conceived and directed by Matthew Woods, told the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but focused more on the evil plots of the right hand man of the king (who looked a lot like Aladdin's Jafar), the prince's search for a squire and a bride, and something about a magic fox. The show is fast paced, there are lots and lots of characters, and audience members are encouraged to participate by shouting out whenever they see something unsavory or get excited.
I was definitely the minority, in an audience full of children and parents, but I did manage to find the show quite entertaining. Visually, the show was very simple, but the few set pieces (blocks and flags and lanterns) were brilliantly and creatively utilized. The show both used and demanded so much imagination, which was perfect for the young kids watching. My favorite part of the performance was the costumes, designed by Cotton Talbot-Minkin, which were wildly elaborate, colorful, and right out of a children's book. Bringing Rumpelstiltskin to life (played by Director Matthew Woods) was a work of genius, with the actor performing on his knees and the costume appearing as if he were "pocket sized" in a very well-executed combination of fake legs and a grand cape. Simply fabulous.
All of the actors involved were incredibly invested in this performance and were constantly including the audience, replying to outbursts of young viewers, laughing and enjoying what they were doing. There was no fourth wall, which made it feel less like a strict performance and more like a celebration. My favorites were Joey C. Pelletier as Dame Gilda Lily, a sassy, over-the-top, gold-fake-eyelash-wearing character whose falsetto voice was a hit with the children and whose subtly naughty jokes entertained the adults. I also had a soft spot for Cameron Cronin as Bruin the Bear, who almost spoke nonsense, substituting lines with food items of the same number of syllables (for example "take a chance on me" became "pick a tangerine"). It was so outrageous, but never stopped being funny.
This production did a lot of gender bending, with men playing mothers, women playing princes, and very little focus on whether the actor was male or female (save for a few "gosh, she sure is manly" jokes). I am a big fan of this choice, particularly when presenting to children, as it lets kids believe they can be whatever they want to be, regardless of stereotypes. There were also very positive (and not cliched fairy tale) messages incorporated in the story, such as women not needing to be saved and people choosing their own futures. This show taught it right.
I do have a few critiques. First and foremost, the show was much too long, especially for a production geared at children. In fact, when the first act ended, I was quite surprised to hear there was another hour to go. For the most part, the children around me stayed interested throughout the entire piece, but I did see some get rather antsy. The actors did a fully choreographed version of "What Does the Fox Say", which probably should have just been the first verse (that goes for the other musical numbers as well), and added extra plot lines that did not seem entirely necessary. The story of Rumpelstiltskin didn't even begin until halfway through act two. I think this show would have worked even better if it was a full hour shorter.
Additionally, there seemed to be a bit of confusion as to whom the jokes were aimed. Most of the show was for the kids, but there were references for the parents as well (such as Goldfinger and ABBA). However, there were a lot of current jokes that seemed aimed at teens and twenty somethings (like Twitter, Taylor Swift, "twerking", and the Kardashians), who (besides me) were not in the audience. Even the final song, which needed to be sung by the audience to save the life of a dying bumble bee, the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends", seemed the wrong choice. While the parents all sang along, none of the 5-10 year old kids knew the words or the melody. I understand that pantos are for the whole family, but I think more specific targeting would have been hugely beneficial in this particular piece.