Ali Babaandthe4TeaThieves, by Judy Staber and Tom Detwiler, lyrics by The Pantoloons. Directed by Tom Detwiler. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
The Company (l-r) Ali Baba, Baba Ganoush, Louie Baba, Baba O-Rhoum, The Wazir of Feng Shui, Lapsang Sou Chong, Ma Sencha, Jeedarling, Orange Pekoe, Chai Chai, Oolong; photo Daniel Region
"...could be her buns...could be her puns!"
For fifteen years The Pantoloons have been entertaining us with their very British-styled entertainments. Based on fairy tales, legends and myths, Judy Staber and her company of "madcap pantoloonatics" have cross-dressed and belly-laughed their way into our hearts, often with highly politically charged dialogue and song parodies. This year's entry is just as madcap as ever, though it seems to have given a short look to the far east, rather than the middle east, and in doing so has become even more family friendly than before.
The audience, led by Sheherezade (Ivanna Selma House a.k.a. Paul Leyden), is encouraged to cheer, to boo and to hiss. The four hissable and booable tea thieves of the title are as villainous in aspect and action as possible (they not only steal tea, they are named for teas and do they tease or what!). They are Ma Sencha (Tamara Snotherday a.k.a. Tom Detwiler), Oolong (Boy Ling T. Kettle a.k.a. Sam Reilly), Jeedarling (Rusty Trailer a.k.a. Joanne Maurer) and Orange Pekoe (Gerry Mander a.k.a. Johnna Murrary), four toughs who know how to drown their sorrows in a samovar.
The good Babas are Louie (Anita Mandalay-Pronto a.k.a. Cathy Lee-Vischer), louie's wife O'Rhoum (I. Wanamaker Howell a.k.a. Paul Murphy), Louie's brother Ali (Ali P. Oxenfree a.k.a. Sally McCarthy), and his beloved Ganoush (Wilma Butfitz a.k.a. Monk Schane-Lydon).
Helping out along the way are Chai Chai, a waitress (Wanda A. Round a.k.a. Nellie Rustick), Lapsang Sou Chong (Dame Amanda Reckonwith a.k.a. Judy Staber) and The Wazir (Butch Erman a.k.a. Matthew Coviello).
As this company (do read their bios in the program - their real ones and their pseudonymous ones) pull off the worst gags and the looniest plot twists the show only gets funnier and funnier. There are the inevitable Panto primer moments: the cross-dresser cross-dresses back to his own gender in order to fool the heroes, but cannot pull it off for reasons that are only too obvious, for example. There are the songs that should be longer and the ones that are just long enough. There is the show curtain that should come in but doesn't and the outsized but necessary props like the Russian samovar that allows Orange Pekoe to show off a flexible and attractive dancer's leg.
You will find both the predictable turn of events and the atypical alteration of the usual aspects of the story. For instance the "open sesame" of this show is a very different sort of key (and in a familiar key that allows you to sing along with Ali) from a very different sort of show - or film.
By the end of the show, as the usual Panto "run" draws to a close, if you haven't had 80 or so minutes of absolute fun, you need to have your head and your heart examined by Freud - if you can find him. A note in the program says that Judy Staber who created the company and headed it for fifteen years is stepping away. This could be her final take-charge moment on the Ghent stage so if for no other reason (and there are ample others) you should see this show. Other founding members of the company have departed over the past several seasons, but this could be the cruelest blow of all - of course if the rest of the company stay together we could see some remarkable things in seasons to come.
One thing to see here, though, are the remarkable costumes created by Joanne Maurer. She has outdone herself this year. Likewise the beautiful and credible sets and lighting by Bill Camp is worth the price of admission. Paul Leyden's excellent pianistics keep the show lively.
Does it seem as though this is an entertainment that one should run to, even more than once if possible? That's the intention of The Pantoloons. It's also mine. I loved it and I think you will too.
Dame Amanda Reckonwith (Judy Staber) as Lapsang Sou Chong; photo: Daniel Region
Tamara Snotherday (Tom Detwiler) as Ma Sencha (disguised as a man) and Gerry Mander (Johnna Murray) as Orange Pekoe; photo: Daniel Region
Ali Baba and the 4 Tea Thievesruns weekends through December 14 at the Ghent Playhouse located at Ghent NY. For information and tickets call 1-800-838-3006 or go on line to www.ghentplayhouse.org.