Not all pantomime involves an annoying silent clown in a beret and suspenders.
British “panto,” as it’s called, is a high-spirited form of musical comedy theater that fills England’s play halls this time of year, and you can see it — quite possibly for the first time in Arizona — beginning this weekend in Scottsdale.
“The first thing I thought was, 'Americans would love this!’” says Marney Austin, a Valley actress playing the lead female role in “Father Christmas and The Snow Queen,” a British panto opening Friday at Theatre Artists Studio.
Austin, an American, lived in Singapore — an ex-British colony — for a time, where she met and married British playwright Alan Austin, author of four pantos, including this one.
“Panto is sort of like, well, honestly, I don’t know what to compare it to. It’s silly and noisy and can be quite over the top. One of the main characters is always what they call 'The Dame,’ and she’s a woman who is always played by a man, but it’s not a drag type thing. There’s always a slapstick scene, too. In ours it’s a pie fight, like the old Laurel and Hardy thing,” says Austin.
The show’s plot line revolves around two children who go through a magical cupboard to rescue Father Christmas (Santa Claus, to Americans) from a dastardly Snow Queen. Along the way, they pursue Flibberdigibbet, her humanoid cat; meet Sign Post, who doesn’t know which direction is which; discover a land filled with magical life-sized toys; and escape skeletons who rule the eerie Forest of the Night. The show includes original music and lyrics by Joe Bousard and Charlotte Brooks.
“The Snow Queen is a nasty piece of work — every witch you’ve ever seen all rolled into one. She goes out into the audience to round up children to put in her cage. She has a spray that’s supposed to kill human children. It all sounds terribly scary, but it’s done in a funny way,” says Austin, who recommends the production for children age 5 and older.
The play sticks closely to standard British pantomime, though it has been rewritten to replace British colloquialisms and political humor with more American fare.
Traditionally, pantos take familiar fairy tales, like “Aladdin” or “Snow White,” and tweak them with song and dance, contemporary references and a string of zany characters. Campy audience participation is essential.
“There’s a lot in it for adults, too. Nothing off-color, but jokes that will go right over a kid’s head,” says Austin. “And, of course, the parents just love to watch the kids get so into it. It’s not like, 'Be quiet, sit in your seat and watch the show.’ The kids can boo and hiss the villain and decide what to do with her at the end. It’s an experience.”