Encore Michigan

‘Panto Claus’ is raucous holiday fun

Review December 02, 2017 Kym Reinstadler

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Christmas pudding. Carolers by candlelight. Ebenezer Scrooge waking up to the true meaning of the season.

These are the images that come to mind when I think of Christmas in England.

But, wait. There’s more: Pantomime (Panto, for short). And Theatre Nova has brought this holiday custom to Ann Arbor for a third December, establishing it as a new holiday tradition in southeast Michigan.

The Year Without Panto Claus, a new play by Carla Milarch and R. MacKenzie Lewis, takes the Theatre Nova stage weekends throughout December. They collaborated on “An Almost British Christmas” in 2015 and “Sugar Plum Panto” in 2016.

A panto is a musical comedy stage production based on fairy tales that’s designed as family entertainment. It’s a mash up of song, dance, slapstick, vaudeville, and in-jokes that can be understood on multiple levels.

Panto Claus is a good example of the panto art form. It’s loaded with topical and physical humor, smart wordplay, exaggerated stock characters, and pleasing music – some of it original, some traditional Christmas songs, and others clever parodies of popular songs (“Rolling in the Deep,” “Happy”).

There was also some rowdy audience participation, especially from the under 12 members of the audience.

The 1 hour and 40-minute show (without intermission) opens with an emaciated-looking Santa Claus (Scott Screws) “vegging out” on celery sticks and Brussels sprouts. It seems that 2017, “the most depressing year in history,” has dealt a fatal blow to Santa’s Christmas spirit. He announces plans to just “sit out” this holiday season.

Talk of constructing border walls has left Santa too depressed to deck the halls.

Spritely elves Jingle and Jangle, wonderfully portrayed by Ramona (Lucius) Burns and Lisa Michaels, resolve to cheer up Santa by presenting him with an example of the true meaning of the season, thus saving Christmas.

But their search ends in sweltering Southtown – a sort of Hell for hope – where their reindeer are confiscated and quarantined to an animal shelter next to a glue factory. They also encounter the villain “Miser Twins” – one the “hot air belching Mr. Orange and the other, Snow Queen.

The thinly veiled political humor plays well in progressive Ann Arbor, but may not be enthusiastically received in more conservative areas of the state.

The script is amazingly current. There’s even a voluptuous Russian vixen (portrayed, in drag, by Screws), who admits she isn’t really from an adoption agency, and urges kids in the crowd to stay off Facebook.

This fight to save Christmas includes a slow motion battle to the theme of Chariots of Fire with candy cane light sabers (or, maybe, hobby horse reindeer), a tag-team take down of Mr. Orange, and (predictably) a cream pie in the face.

The three adult actors ricochet across the stage each play a half-dozen roles, occasionally coming in a second late with the new costume askew.

Yeah. It’s silly buffoonery. It also kind of soothes the sore spots in a holiday season lacking levity.

I think I’ll plan to go again next year.