The latest installment in Stages Repertory Theatre's annual Christmas "pantomimes," Panto Mother Goose, is their best - a tuneful and somewhat zippy take on some familiar fairy tale characters, with a nimble score by David Nehls, but top-heavy book and far nimbler lyrics by Stages' artistic director Kenn McLaughlin. The real plus factor of these holiday shows for "children of all ages" is the showcase they provide for a who's who of Houston theater talent, who get to strut their considerable gifts for improv and make believe.
With tongues firmly planted, the actors gleefully chew the scenery - the Necco wafer-storybook cutouts by Jody Bobrovsky, ripe for chewing, look as if they've been printed from an old-time school primer.
Though fresh and heartfelt, this show, like its three predecessors, is way too long. By the second or third time when someone teaches us a moral, the heads of the tiny tots start to bob and weave, their discontent audible with not-so-soft whispers. There are lessons upon lessons: bullies, girls who dream big, unthinking parents, physical disabilities. Sweet Mother Goose, the show runs two-and-a-half hours with intermission! You can almost hear the kids say, Bring on the bad guys, already, and forget this preachy stuff. We, among the older set, wish for that too.
A little swipe of the red pencil is all that's needed to keep this show bouncing along, which is its natural proclivity. There's a pleasant bitchy wit underneath, and that needs to shine. (Most of the annoying sexual innuendos, added for the parents, fade away after the first fifteen minutes and we relax into the first-class staging and first-rate performances.
Director Ryan Schabach, who gives this Panto its fleet-footedness, returns as audience favorite Buttons, who is relegated in this version to supervising the marriage between Mother Goose (Genevieve Allenbury, who wrote and performed in Stages' three previous Pantos) and Old King Cole (Jimmy Phillips, one of Houston's most prestigious musical theater actors and directors.) Phillips doesn't have much to do as King Cole, but he does it with competence and good will. By getting married, Goose will retire as rhyme queen, so she creates a poetry competition to determine the next ruler of childhood verse.
The plot is needlessly complicated and dutifully explained in exposition, but many of kid-lit characters make an appearance. Little Tommy Tucker (Mark Ivey), who "sings for his supper," is the reporter for the Goose Island Gander, but aches to be a Broadway gypsy. Jack (Mitchell Greco), of water fetching fame, is the sympathetic hero, but since he stutters badly he's not considered a serious contender for the title, but he can rhyme better than any Goose islander. Jack loves Jill (Teresa Zimmerman), no surprise, but she wants to be an independent and liberated. The trio Hickory, Dickory, and Doc (Hunter Frederick, Cameron Davis, Danny Dyer) work for arch villain Baron Von Nastypants (an amazingly adroit Andrew Ingalls), whose schemes to usurp the kingdom drive the show with wry audience ad-libs and a beguiling stage presence. Mary, Mary Quite Contrary (a fine blustery Joshua Estrada) is the shrew married to Nastypants; while his head henchman is Wee Willie Winkie (Kyle Curry, equally amazing), a bumbling comic foil "in his nightgown"with Borscht Belt pedigree.
Veterans Cameron Bautsch, Carolyn Johnson, Beth Lazarou, Jessica Janes, and newcomer Sarah Myers round out the talented cast, but they're more filler than characters. Like Phillips, they don't have much to do, but when they do it, they give their all.
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Nehls' score and McLaughlin's lyrics serve the tale admirably, with standouts that include a rousing anthem for Nastypants, "Blame it on My Mama and My Dad," and a lovely duet ballad, "Lonely Little People," for Jack and Tommy Tucker.
One can't say the panto flies by, but if you keep nudging the kids, they'll have a fine time yelling at the villains and cheering the heroes. The many lumpy morals are nevertheless sweet and educational - friendship and love rule the world - so the holiday message rings out loud and clear. And everything is redeemed by the go-for-broke performances. The actors bring Christmas joy in spades.
English panto goes American through January 6 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Purchase tickets online at stagestheatre.com or call 713-527-0220. $25-$41.