Lost: The Grimm Years by Judy Staber and The PantoLoons. Directed by Tom Detwiler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Rick Rowsell, Cathy Lee-Visscher, Sally McCarthy, Ron Harrington; photo: Daniel Region
"Letís not beat a dead horse."
Not a pejorative, the title of this review, but a quote that begins the guffaws of an audience seeking a way out of the day-to-day negativity that surrounds us. You donít stop laughing for the next hour and five minutes, that is if you are lucky enough to get a ticket to "Lost: The Grimm Years" at the Ghent Playhouse. Hansel and Gretel Humperdinck and Little Red Riding Hood set out on their historic journeys and somehow, in this new holiday show, their paths cross and for a while all hell breaks loose until the inevitable happy ending holds sway.
That is all youíll get from me about the plot of this play. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that there is a lot of cross-dressing in the British tradition of the Panto, a lot of bad jokes are told, puns abound, musical parodies tickle your brain, and the Grimm Brothers spin in their graves (not visually - but they do). The company of players, so well-trained by Judy Staber and Tom Detwiler, cavort without a single sense of embarrassment or humiliation in their assigned gender-challenged roles that even a woman playing a girl seems quite natural.
Cathy Lee-Visscher plays Gretel without any trouble. She skips and canters, babbles and brooks the challenges given her in the script, even to reacting to wild mushrooms as though she was born to ingest them. Sally McCarthy as her brother Hansel manages to look masculine even in a blond wig that could once have been a mop and might have been intended for Ringo Starr to make him look less Jewish as a Beatle. Together these two bring a whole new meaning to siblinghood. The only thing missing in their performances is more time on stage.
Ron Harrington is Witch Julia (which Julia, you ask - you know) and Rick Rowsell her able sous chef Pepper Jacques (yes, her collaborator in all things "food"). Together they bring the level of hilarity up a full step. In a full-page tribute to the contributions of these two men to the eleven year history of the PantoLoons, founder Judy Staber explains their importance and in advance of their departure from the company mourns their loss. That idea - they no longer performing after this season - is the one touch of sadness in this yearís proceedings. Once you see them, you will join in the prayers for their return for at least one more season!
Staber, herself, appears on stage as Bert Humperdinck, the out-of-work single parent of Hansel and Gretel. She has never been better. Perhaps inspired by the recent losses of classic character actors from the silver screen she brings a hearty sensibility, a flexible moustache and a portly belly-laugh to the stage this season. As her vis-a-vis, Mother Hood, we have the delicious performance by Paul Murphy. Red-headed, aproned, and as matronly as Shirley Booth in three-inch heels, Murphy is angelic and at the same time very human in the role.
Little Red is played with vigor, elan and an almost sweet-tooth elegance by Mark Schane-Leydon. If this character was a meal unto herself, she would be delivered from a very upscale Burger King (not MacDonalds, no never that). Schane-Leydon is a wonderful addition to this company of Loonatics. Joanne Maurer, who has costumed this company to a fare-thee-well, plays the role of Officer Green and cleans up the stage with her in-depth realization of the outer extremes of the part.
Johnna Murray is the king of villains, L. Wolf. There is no one like her, no one who can bring so much humor, fun, talent of both the acting and singing varieties, and controlled freedom to this stage. In this show she is given reigned-in free-reign and her performance is nothing less than show-stopping.
Tom Detwiler has the choice and appetizing part of Granny Hood. He also has a classic bit of British stage business in his strip-tease which is almost enough to get the company arrested for outright outrageousness. Paul Leyden as Dinah B. has the best role of his career - almost. He is first and last the musician you expect and foremost and finally the funniest Loon on the Ghent Playhouse stage.
There are only two performances left. See one of them. Sneak in and see them both if you can. Nothing will raise your spirits and get you ready for the Christmas holiday to come the way this play will - nothing. Please - EXTEND THEIR RUN!!!!!!!!
Lost: The Grimm Years plays through Sunday, December 12 at the Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, NY. For tickets call the box office at 518-392-6264.