Menagerie Ń Trois by Judy Staber and the Loons. Directed by Tom Detwiler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman (♦♦♦♦)
Sally McCarthy and Tom Detwiler as Wilbur and Honey; photo; Daniel Region
"Itís thrown off your hormones. I know!"
(To be sung to some tune or other)
Iím the critic on the aisle
Who is fending off a smile
As the PantoLoons, with style,
Perform their playlet.
I just saw the show today;
It was giddy, it was fey;
And I really like the way
They form their gay set.
If cross-dressing throws you off,
Or cross-breeding makes you cough,
There is politics enough
To bring you laughter.
Get your fairy-tales in Ghent
Where the Loons are, yearly, sent
ĎTill their energy is spent
Happíly ever after!
But seriously folks, the annual "Panto" at the Ghent Playhouse, is an always sought-after treat. If you arenít sure what a "panto" is let me explain: a play with music which uses a well known fairy story or folk tale to address the issues of the day. Itís intent is to both amuse and illuminate its audience. In the fine old British tradition there are male parts played by women and female parts played by men. Not everyone must cross-dress, but almost everyone does in most of the shows. In the case of the company in Ghent, NY, only one character in the current show is played by an actor of the same gender.
This yearís essay in topical humor uses The 3 Little Pigs and Goldilocks and The 3 Bears as its inspiration while maintaining its British roots through the incorporation of Shakespeareís Romeo and Juliet as well. To make matters more interesting the 3 Bears are Jewish and the 3 Pigs are probably not, although with the last name of Wiener, they arenít really sure. Oy Vay!
As always with this company half the fun of the piece comes from reading the program. Each of the performers takes on an alternate identity with an alternate program bio and reading those is somehow more fun than it ought to be. Paul Leyden, for instance, who is the Music Director for the show becomes Doremi Fasollati and then plays the role of Mother Nature while also playing the piano for the performance. Judy Staber, the director, founder and chief writer becomes Dame Amanda Reckonwith who also plays Papa Bear. And so it goes.
The plot of this 80 minute show is anything but simple: Wolf Bilkser, getting older it seems, gives up blowing down pigís houses to take on real estate and ponzi schemes and Oscar Wiener, the oldest Pig brother, decides to run for high political office (he gets called "a Mayoral chauvinist Pig"). His brother Porky is seeking a career in television films and their sibling Wilbur, seeking love, falls into that condition upon meeting Honey Bear Berenstein whose parents are dead-set against any amorous connections for Honey or for their adopted daughter Goldilocks. Fryer Duck, an intermediary, intervenes and, naturally, madness ensues.
The showís dialogue is not the funniest this company has ever conceived and not the most politically pointed and astute either, but the show is such a lovely cohesive piece that this scarcely matters at all. For the first time in a long time the lyrics are the brightest, shiniest bits of verbiage in this show and sometimes approach true brilliance. The eighteen songs, all to familiar music, include such highlights as "Brotherhood of Ham," "Put Your Land in the Hands," "Oh, My Ham! (I love him so)" and "And All That Swill."
Cathy Lee-Visscher, Johnna Murray and Sally McCarthy are Oscar, Porky and Wilbur Wiener. They are all brothers who sing like the Andrews Sisters and do it brilliantly. Judy Staber, Paul Murphy and Tom Detwiler are Mama, Papa and Honey Bear Berenstein and a more Yiddische trio you cannot imagine. Joanne Maurer, who also designed and executed the most deliberately delicious costumes imaginable, is the constantly confused Fryer Duck while Mark Schane-Lydon, whose voice and arms and bulk are decidedly masculine, is the fragile flower known as Goldilocks. Walter Bauer, a relative newcomer to the footlights, plays Wolf and plays it with an edgy quality that will be long-remembered.
Detwiler and Schane-Lydon are so different from one another that, as adopted sisters, they carry on a long tradition here and elsewhere of counterpointing one anotherís personal styles. They are funny together and apart and when each of their characters finds love they do so in very different ways. Lee-Visscher plays with a vigorous energy that is so male itís scary while McCarthy softens her usual performance style into a romantic young guy with real longings. Murray make a stutter into a monologue and the monologue into a miracle of quiet chuckles and merriment. Murphy and Staber are so Jewish they could be victims in the next regional pogrom. Maurer and Bauer are both creative animals and it shows in their perfectly delineated characters. Leydenís attack on Mother Nature is a positive step up his career ladder as a cross-dressing stage performer.
The setting by Bill Camp and the much-missed Rick Rowsell is just right and Campís lighting is effective and sets the right moods always.
Itís hard to say too much more about this zany, wonderful group whose intent is to entertain and who manage to do that and more. They also make you think, just a bit, about how wonderful a world it is that allows Herman Cain and the PantoLoons to make the news the same week.
Menagerie Ń Trois plays at the Ghent Playhouse located on Rte 66 in Ghent, New York through December 11. For ticket information call the box office at 518-392-6264.