By Daniel Skora
It’s another year, another holiday season, and another Christmas Panto at Theatre Nova. This is the third year the Nova has offered up a show whose traditions go back hundreds of years. Comedy often gives the impression that it’s an undisciplined profession, what with improvs and stand-up comedians seemingly rattling off jokes and funny situations like they’d just been created. But comedy is a serious business. Even Chuckles the Clown let it be known that there was a method to his madness when he revealed his comedic strategy thusly: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants”.
The Panto tradition harkens back at least to merry Ol’ England. It includes pantomime, slapstick, songs, cross-dressing, fairy tales, audience participation, and pinches of adult humor that fly over the heads of the little children. Theatre Nova’a “The Year Without a Panto Claus” has all of these and more. The storyline upon which the action of this year’s Panto is based has to do with the malaise that’s preventing Santa from wanting to deliver Christmas presents to all good boys and girls.
Santa, played by Scott Screws, has become a couch potato. He has absolutely no desire to get his elves cranking out toys. But two of them, Jingle (Lisa Michaels) and Jangle (Ramona Burns) have a sense of the importance of everyone having hope and maintaining a positive attitude through these trying times. The bulk of this 100 minute show, presented without intermission, has the elves doing their darndest to jump start Santa back to his jolly old ways. Along the way, the Panto presents nearly a dozen other characters all played by the three cast members. They include: Mrs. Claus; Santa’s reindeer Vixen and Dasher; Heat and Snow, the miser twins; and a female Russian spy who seems to be foxin’ around every place she can, looking for someone to collude with.
Plays are sometimes like furniture: they have a veneer and then there’s everything else that lies beneath. The veneer of Theatre Nova’s Christmas Panto is bright and shiney with two great performances by Burns and Michaels (their names even have that old time Vaudeville marquis ring to them: “Burns and Michaels – Anything Can Happen and It Will”). The two are flush with enthusiasm, have heavy-duty smiles, work together wonderfully, and are great with the physical comedy. Another shining contribution comes from Composer and Music Director R. MacKenzie Lewis, who’s crafted some toe-tapping ditties whose infectious melodies deserve more air time than they get.
The lone smudge on the veneer might be Santa, who comes across more like one of those guys you see lying on the sidewalk of any big-city building with a cardboard sign in his hand than as someone who can transform himself into anything close to the traditional Old St. Nick. Screws plays it as best he can with the stage persona he has been given by the theatre gods. But when you think of the kids, to whom the show is largely targeted and to whom Santa is already a recognized icon, you have to wonder why it should be necessary to explain to them what this Panto stuff is all about and why Santa can be seen dressed as a woman.
As to the stuff beneath the veneer, Santa’s malaise started many months ago, according to the play on November 9th of 2016. And we all know what happened then. While the Panto tradition does include topical humor, it would seem a fair assessment that both sides of the political spectrum have reason to be called out for their indiscretions. And in the interest of fairness, both sides should be given the same amount of (mis)treatment in the Panto. “The Year Without a Panto Claus”, in attributing Santa’s depression to a laundry list of items on the conservative agenda, becomes nothing more than a political rant disguised as entertainment. And it really doesn’t seem to make good business sense to possibly alienate up to half of one’s potential customers.
“The Year Without a Panto Claus” is written and choreographed by Carla Milarch. Melissa Freilich directs, Forest Hejkal is the set designer, and costumes are by Cal Schwartz. Lighting design is by Allan McMillan, props by Becky Fox. Stage manager for the production is Michelle Resnick. Alternating in the role of Iggy, a kind of representative for every-child in America, are Coleman Grengs and William Powers. The show runs through December 31st. Tickets are available by calling the theatre’s box office at 734.635-8450. Contact A2TheatreNOVA@gmail.com or go online at www.TheatreNova.org for more information. Theatre Nova is located at 410 W. Huron Street, a stone’s throw off the road in downtown Ann Arbo