Jack and the Beanstalk: A Tale of Greed by Johnna Murray and The PantoLoons. Directed by Tom Detwiler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Joanne Maurer as Goldie, Cathy Lee-Vischer as Fanny Mae, Tom Detwiler as Harpie, and Johnna Murray as Freddy Mac; photo: Dan Region
"A surly piece of sirloin."
There are holiday traditions one cherishes and traditions one fears. I dread dry white meat turkey. I adore a fruit-inflected cranberry relish. I avoid "The Wizard of Oz" and I look forward to the Macyís Thanksgiving Day Parade. I fear tryptophans if I have to drive home; I cherish the company of dear friends. I cherish, dread, adore, look forward to, fear but never avoid the yearly foray into the British, and Ghent Playhouse tradition of the Christmas Panto. Every year I worry about the company: will the show be funny; will I want the songs to be longer - or shorter; will the cross-dressing characters work; will the political jokes be Democrat or Republican? This is a Presidential election year and a tricky one: will the show make me cringe or cry out a hearty Bravo!? Well the traditional days are behind me and I can write, with a smile and a hearty ho-ho heart, of the newest achievement in this grand old genre. The Pantoloons have done it again: happiness prevails.
The story in brief: Widow Trott sends her son Jack off to sell Bossy the cow for nothing less than five gold pieces so that they can eat and pay the mortgage. Not too bright, and overly fond of the cow I must say, Jack sells her, instead, for five magic beans to Simple Simon, an organic farmer whose daughter Jill takes a fancy to Jack. Jackís beans grow quickly into a giant beanstalk at the top of which Jack discovers the home of the mortgage holders Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, two giants in the field. Slyer and much more clever than thought to be, Jack manages to wangle freedom from the oppression of the sub-prime loan for his mother and at the same time he finds a way to spend his life with his beloved cow.
Add to this simple story parody lyrics to sixteen familiar tunes - most of them - and you have the basic material of the show. One element which makes this a favorite of audiences is the often ad-libbed quips about the current events of the day, primarily political, and you have the text of what was, on opening night, a one hour and fifteen minute one-act miracle of silliness, audience participation and high lowdown comedy.
The cast is, as always, a treat. Many Ghent Playhouse regulars are assembled again, most playing characters of the opposite sex, in the most hilarious costumes Joanne Maurer has ever created for this gang. They play on a practical and magical set designed by Rick Rowsell and are gorgeously lit by Bill Camp. Paul Leyden, as Sweety Pieman, plays the downstage piano, acts, sings and dances a duet. Nothing more could be asked of him, especially in the funny hat and smock he wears.
Sally McCarthy is a personable Jack. Her careful "Equus" gestures toward Bossy, the cow, are as delightful as her singing and her flirting with both disaster in the clouds and romance on the ground. As her beloved cow, Rick Rowsell makes milking a merry mixture of mayhem and mystery. If you canít get blood out of a stone, believe me, you canít squeeze milk out of this brashly male bovine mammal. Equus lives in this coupleís relationship.
Paul Murphy is Dame Foxy Trott, Jackís mom, and if you donít recognize her forebears from her wig you will from her wink and her sexy attacks on the elk steaks youíll hear about. Political parody presides. Murphy is at his best here. Dame Trott does just that and without a canter to distract her from her goals. Simon, her vis-a-vis, is played by Judy Staber who originated the whole Panto movement in Columbia County. Portly, mustachioed, pontificating yet mobile, Staberís Simon is endearing and makes a wonderful addition to her other classic characters: Cinderellaís Fairy Godmother and Rumpelstiltskin. She also leads the world in "The Cucumber Song" (words in the program, so thereís no excuse for sitting this out).
Cathy Lee-Vischer and Johnna Murray are Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, with just a little bow to both Margaret Hamilton and the current home-building/conversion craze. If the jolly green giant is your idol, or even Mr. Clean, wait till you get a look at these two. They are funny, scary, and even more to the point than Kermit the frog would be. Among their many possessions in this play are Harpie, a golden harp - played by director Detwiler - and Goldie Goose - the egg-layer - played by Joanne Maurer. Detwiler is hilarious in high heels, Marlene Dietrich gold legs, and a certain air of musical genius not seen since Liberace departed this world. Maurer is brilliant as she lays those eggs on command and chirps in a hawkish, mawkish manner.
Ron Harrington plays Jill in his best ingenue/soubrette fashion. His blonde curls and his big flirty eyes make him the perfect heroine and his way with a clever turn-of-phrase is unique and unforgettable. He can even make a comment about a cow into something less than discreetly sexual and yet allow it to remain innocent at the same time.
Musical high points in this latest entertainment were "Up the Beanstalk" a well-known ABBA song, "Start Walkiní," "Jackís Lament" (an Irving Berlin you wonít forget), "Bye Bye Bush Beans," and Jillís solo, "A Girl Like Me."
The Ghent Playhouse production only runs on weekends and ends its all too brief run on December 14. Is the show for families - absolutely, but be prepared to explain a few things about the sexual confusion that reigns supreme in the pantomime tradition. Judy Staber's program notes will help. These shows tend to sell out so run, do not walk, to the nearest telephone and indulge in a holiday tradition that is too good to be true.
Jack and the Beanstalk plays at the Ghent Playhouse Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00 through December 14. Tickets range from $8-$15. For information or tickets, call the box office at 518-392-6264.