The Winter Panto is a
seasonal tradition in the U.K. Audiences young and old are regaled by stock
characters (representing good and evil) as they banish old man winter (until
next year) and welcome in the spring.
The only people
having more fun than the performers staging a winter panto on this side of the
pond, are the children joining in on the merry mayhem. They don’t have to be
asked twice. They happily shout down the villains in Imaginary Beasts’ PAUL
BUNYAN (and the winter of the BLUE SNOW), to warn the “good and true”
characters of an approaching “baddie.”
The children (and a
lot of the parents, as well) boo and hiss and at just the right moment, they
offer contrarian advice to a stubborn character who dares to say, “No, I
can’t.” The seemingly spontaneous “Oh, yes you can” audience reply goes back
and forth until the children can’t laugh anymore. For most of them, I suspect
this isn’t their first rodeo.
The Beasts have
chosen a bit of Americana
to hang this panto on: Paul Bunyan (Kiki Samko) and the famous blue ox, Babe
(Colin McIntyre) figure at the center of a wager. King Zero, as in temperature,
(company director Matthew Woods) has issued a challenge to an old storyteller,
(Dan Prior), who sounds suspiciously like Hal Holbrook/ Mark Twain, although
his name would suggest he hails from Oklahoma.
But I digress… and I
caught it from the Beasts. There’s a contest afoot and if Oakey loses, winter
will never end and the moon (Jemma Tory) will disappear. I’m not 100 % on this
but I think that’s Woods’ plot. It really doesn’t matter because the joy of
panto rests squarely on the shoulders of the characters.
ecologically motivated trees (James K. Sims and Kim Klasner) that can outfox any
logger… to Amy Meyer’s runaway, tap dancing giant pancake… to Noah Simes’ shamelessly
flirtatious “Dame” (fabulous costumes from Cotton Talbot-Minken and Sophia Nora
for the flapjack), the premium placed on each and every character is to collect
as many laughs as are possible. And, “Oh, yes they can.” Even the puppets get
in on the hilarity.
Bunyan is aided in this shaggy dog story by a perky, indefatigable Laura
Detwiler and a sad sack, self-doubting pup whose fleas even flee from his
moaning. He’s portrayed by the incomparable Joey C. Pelletier. The entire kit
and caboodle sing and dance selections, for example, from the late Captain and
(the still with us) Tennille’s Muskrat Love, all the way up to Rogers
and Hammerstein’s You’ll Never Walk Alone (delivered in high operatic
form by Ly Meloccaro in a beard borrowed from James Harden or maybe I’ve been
watching too much basketball), just another surprise to another madcap panto.
Company One’s MISS
YOU LIKE HELL (ostensibly about a family divided by deportation), playing @ A.R.T.’s
Oberon Club through Jan. 27th, was written by Quira Alegria Hudes
first as a play; then around 2011 she began developing it as a musical at the
height of President Obama’s stringent immigration policies.
Hudes is no stranger
to collaboration. Her work with Lin-Manuel Miranda on IN THE HEIGHTS won them
the Tony for best musical. MISS YOU LIKE HELL, with music and lyrics by
singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, opened to acclaim Off-Broadway in 2018.
Originally focusing on one mother’s struggle to reconnect with her daughter, in
light of the current president’s attacks on immigrants, MISS YOU LIKE HELL has
a whole new resonance.
You can’t watch this
mother’s agony in MISS YOU LIKE HELL and not think of the three thousand
children unlawfully separated from their parents and lost in the “system”—with two dead—(despite identification numbers stamped, Nazi
style, on their forearms)… engineered solely to serve as a deterrent to asylum
The musical may
represent one mother’s cross country journey to win back her child’s affection,
but McKoewn’s songs are universal. Her urgent, plaintive I’m Just One
Slip Away “treading water and waiting for the tide to rise” is a powerful, desperate
anthem not just for this mother (the charismatic Johanna Carlisle-Zapeda) but
for anyone fighting a lost cause.
MISS YOU LIKE HELL feels
a lot like IN THE HEIGHTS because of the myriad stories which break in on the main
“road trip adventure plot” (to get mother to a hearing which could lead maybe
to a temporary deportation deferral). Some of the detours interrupt the
momentum, detracting from the principal point of the journey: for Zapeda’s
estranged mother to bond with Krystal Hernandez’ headstrong, resentful
The best songs and
the best moments are the ones which center on the bonding: McKeown’s lovely
country-rock Dance With Me “under the moonlight” reminded me of Mary
Chapin Carpenter’s lively Down at the Twist and Shout. Hernandez’
inconsolable Miss You Like Hell and mother’s ardent You Are the
Bread. I am the Hunger “Fill me up for one more day” are the showstoppers.
(Kudos to music director David Coleman’s nimble orchestra.)
While the rest of the
musical meanders all over the map, we meet kind souls who help out (and a few
unkind ones who don’t). Director Summer L. Williams and company mine the humor
from the secondary stories, like the gay couple (Matthew Murphy and John
O’Neil) whose goal is to get married in every state now that you can… and the
daunting state trooper (Cristhian Mancinas Garcia) who could, if he wanted to,
arrest mother on the spot… and the charming tamale vendor (Adrian Peguero) who
seduces mother with one bite of his pie and a tasty song.
Come to think of it,
though, she actually does the seducing… which is part of the musical’s undoing.
She sells herself as an “earth mother,” brimming with the life force of her
female ancestors, a free spirit possessing a vital spark which she wants to
pass on to her daughter… but she seems rudderless and easily distracted from
her mission. In point of fact, it’s Raijene Murchison as the park
ranger/internet follower whose courage reunites mother and daughter, more than
The law of unintended
consequences brought me right up to the present again when the park ranger
sings an ode to our national parks praising their grand purpose: to be open to
everyone. NOT anymore. And the ranger isn’t being paid. Perhaps that’s what
MISS YOU LIKE HELL is now, not so much a mother-and-child reunion, but a stand
against that horrific, useless, obscene wall.
SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS, Bess
Wohl’s charming send-up of the self-realization movement is getting a
crackerjack production at SpeakEasy Stage (meditating on itself through Feb. 2nd).
Director M. Bevin O’Gara has choreographed space and silence so seamlessly that
our laughter becomes part of the whole. You can’t help yourself when the leader
of the four day, silent retreat greets the newcomers with “I am not the
teacher. You are the teacher. You came here to meet yourself.”
If you’ve been to one
of these seminars which promise “transformation,” and even if you haven’t, you
recognize the absurdity of guaranteeing “instant karma” (with apologies to John
Lennon). O’Gara’s actors express every emotion we need to understand their
mission, all without speaking. For the most part, everyone but the gravel
voiced leader (the cheeky Marianna Bassham) is silent.
Some suffer in
silence. Some (like the hilarious Nael Nacer) suffer in loud, gesticulating
silence when his pompous, full of himself roommate (Sam Simahk) hogs the floor
of their small cabin in the woods, then fills it with irritating incense, which
only serves to aggravate Nacer more. Two sincere women (Kerry A. Dowling and
Celeste Oliva) arrive together, perhaps to strengthen their relationship or
work on their problems.
One flirty young
woman (the funny, cell phone addicted Gigi Watson) has signed up, it would
seem, to work on her feminine wiles. (She needn’t have doubted her charms: Two
of the men seem immediately interested.) The last camper/acolyte is a rather vulnerable,
lost looking middle aged man who may be sick (Barlow Adamson, brilliant as the
sad sack we all worry about).
The script has a few
missteps, like how did the clueless sad sack get through the admission process
or even get interested in the program … and why fool us, along with the
campers, about a certain animal from THE WINTER’S TALE (I’m trying hard not to
give anything away.) Mostly the play is delightfully amusing, especially when
channeling Christopher Durang (the scene where the so-to-speak “fur” flies in
BEYOND THERAPY). The best part of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS is that Wohl gives us
permission to laugh at the pedantic guru dispensing metaphors as wisdom.