Hair Loom! Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin in Dis-Tress by Judy Staber and the Loons. Directed by Tom Detwiler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"O, brave new world that has such creatures in it."
When Columbia County’s PantaLoons get going they really charge up on all cylinders. This season, in their three week run at the Ghent Playhouse, they are taking on two classics of the Grimm Brother output, Rapunzel with her long golden hair, and Rumplestiltskin with his straw into gold routine and combining them into one, immodestly political, comic romp. Using herb and garden references in so many ways, they have managed to create a new tale, one of two sisters lost to each other through the intervention of the garden witch next door, who are reunited under the oddest of circumstances, three mothers’ lies.
"Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart," would seem to the watch-cry of this troup of players, none of whom are anything other than young at heart. The cleverly inserted references to "Shrub" and his illegal war, to various Washington and Albany political luminaries and their private and personal needs and issues and their incorporation into the plot-heavy storyline of Hair Loom! are evidence of the richness of local and national material as well as to the cleverness of Judy Staber who oversees the process of creation here. Surely as the political scene exposes new information some of it will make its way into the play, so there’s no point in quoting lines which may disappear as the show continues its holiday run. Instead, the characters and their portrayers should take precedence.
It should be noted here that in classic British fashion the cast is primarily cross-dressing - men playing women, women playing men. As peculiar as you may think this, it is traditional and this company has a roaring good time with this, as usual. Each member of the company has chosen an alter-ego (see below) who takes on a role in this all-principal, no chorus musical.
Miss Allanious plays Rapunzel Gardener, first-born child of Rosemary and Rue Gardener (Rosemary is the lone parent on view, played by Herbacea Sprig). Miss Allanious, in real life, is Ron Harrington. His Rapunzel is a singer whose voice inspires love in young Prince Basil, played by Basil Alfredo (or Sally McCarthy), another sweet singer. The two make beautiful music together.
Rapunzel’s sister Ranuncula is played by Little Ricky Rows Well (or Rick Rowsell) whose dancing feet and pert smile similarly inspire love in Prince Basil’s older brother, King Borage (played by Anita Mandalay-Pronto, born Cathy Lee-Vischer). These two also duet nicely.
Tamara Snotherday (a.ka. Tom Detwiler) plays the boy’s mother, Dowager Queen Belladonna whose sister, missing all these years, is actually Dame Ragweed, a witch, as portrayed by Oliver Gaylord Camp (otherwise known as Johnna Murray - the only cast member not actually playing a member of the opposite sex).
Witch Ragweed has usurped Rapunzel from Rosemary (played in reality by Paul Murphy) to replace the son she lost to her wizarding husband. That long-lost son, Rumplestiltskin, is played by Polly (Apollonius) Feemus (or Judy Staber, herself). Filling out the cast is the Palace servant, Thrift, undertaken by Jolly Jumper (or Joanne Maurer).
With all this confusion going on, the company plays out their story, retells it and lets the audience participate with appropriate boos, hisses and cheers. Basically, a good time is had by all and the songs, all twenty of them, are parodies of songs you know, or should know if you’re a musical comedy fan. The whole affair consumes 94 minutes in a single act and the actions is unrelenting and definitely funny.
Opening nights of material of this sort can by trying as the cast begins to understand where the laughs are, and how long they may last. Often moments are mis-timed and good jokes, both verbal and physical, may fall flat. This bunch of madcaps, however, should never be daunted by something not receiving the reaction they assume is their own. Each audience will undoubtedly bring different perspectives to what they see and hear, but hopefully none will be daunted by the opposite sexism of the casting.
In fact, Murray, cast as a woman in this year’s event, pulls off the almost impossible here: she acts like a man acting like a woman and in her very own Victor/Victoria experience manages to be among the finest players in this show. Everything she does, or says, or sings, is expert and funny and charming. Detwiler who usually gets the heaviest laugh lines in this plays is almost an incidental player here. Still, he and his gown and wig get the laughs allotted to him.
Rowsell’s Ranuncula emerges as the quintessential ingenue, all smiles and grace and charm. Harrington’s Rapunzel, on the other hand, has guts and drive and hairdos to contend with and he pulls it all off with extraordinary flair. His ballad, taken from the current Broadway hit, The Drowsy Chaperone, allows him to exhibit a variety of emotions and to do so very well.
The two brothers are excellent. Lee-Vischer as the king is strong and handsome and sings with lovely tones, while her brother, in the hands and voice of McCarthy, emerges from the bunch as the most lyrical voice on the stage. Her tenor is superb.
Murphy is all tenderness and awkwardness as the pregnant Rosemary and he is very funny indeed trying to clutch low-lying plants in the show’s opening scene. Staber, as the villainous, ugly old man of the play, steals applause in the boos and hisses accorded her and in her musical numbers is at her finest, particularly her ten o’clock song "They Can’t Know My Name."
Maurer is also the costume designer for this romp about Ramps and Rumps. If the lines don’t get you the costumes certainly will for they are colorful, funny and perfect for their characters.
One costume that needs to be remarked upon is that of Campanula (the accompanist/musical director/interlocutor played by Bert deBlues, or Paul Leyden). Donning two hats and sometimes playing the piano with no hands, he is ideal for his role here.
Rick Rowsell also designed the fairy-tale set for this show and Ian Gulliver has brightened the affair with his lighting.
And, not to spill too many of Jack’s beans (he’s not in this show) there is a pre-show show with puppets created by Maurer and Rowsell. If I have one qualm about this production it is the difficulty in getting the puppets’ voice truly audible through the too, too solid flesh of the set, and this goes for the music as well.
Treat yourself to a holiday musical that has no ghosts, no Scrooge, and not one Tiny Tim reference. Get to the Ghent Playhouse while there’s still a seat left to purchase (opening night was completely sold out). You’ll never regret the effort!
The Witch and her step-daughter (sic) Rapunzel; photo: Dan Region
Hair Loom! plays at the Ghent Playhouse in Ghent , NY through December 9 with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 and Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $8-$15. For reservations, call 518-392-6264.