Fun family outings to the theater are as rare as snow in Houston. Most shows billed for the entire clan are as hackneyed as a TV rerun — how much Dickens can a body take in a lifetime? Happily, Stages Repertory Theatre's Panto Sleeping Beauty is that special "family musical" that really is a delicious holiday confection everyone can enjoy — spicy enough for grownups and sweet enough for little ones.
The tale about good conquering evil starts in the library of the "Skystonian," with Mrs. Makeitup (Genevieve Allenbury) and Buttons the Bellboy (Ryan Schabach) ready to rewrite Sleeping Beauty. Buttons's newfangled version includes a girl named Nadia (Nyseli Vega) and her adoring friend Peter (Garret Storms).
A good deal of this show's charm comes from the interaction between the actors on stage and the audience, especially the youngsters. And the kids at opening night giggled and wiggled in their seats, delighted when Nadia and Peter seemingly got pulled up onto the stage from the audience. Later, when actors needed volunteers, tiny hands all around the theater bolted up into the air.
Written, directed and choreographed by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, with music by David Nehls, this Sleeping Beauty is a long way from anything the Brothers Grimm ever wrote. The witch in this story is now an "evil fairy." She calls herself Meanie and is played by an enchantingly scene-chewing Carolyn Johnson, who curses the baby Nadia because she's not invited to the infant's christening (never mind that Nadia's Jewish). Johnson savors every moment spent pointing her bony finger in Nadia's face and plotting new evil for the poor girl. Luckily, Meanie's good fairy sisters — the hippie, tree-hugging Trini (Kay Allmand) and the spangle-loving Queenie (Melodie Smith) — are there to save the day. Nadia won't die when she pricks her finger at 18, like Meanie wants. Instead, she'll sleep for a very long time, unless her true love wakes her with a kiss.
This is a big, messy show stuffed full of weird ideas that somehow work together even though they shouldn't. For example, Laura Wingfield (Susan Draper), a character whose only connection to Nadia is that she too is in desperate need of a man, shows up. Also, two squirrels named Chip (Kendrick Mitchell) and Dale (Kregg Dailey) leap into a couple of scenes, doing a surprisingly sexy squirrel striptease — kudos to Mitchell and Dailey for making squirrel tails so wonderfully wicked. Bizarre as all this might sound, these moments are hysterical. The show's creators actually appear to have been influenced by Tamarie Cooper's writing — her famous summer series is also full of strange and hilarious non sequiturs and often runs at Stages.
Sexual innuendo runs throughout the musical, but it stays far enough below the radar so that the kiddos don't catch on. Besides the dancing squirrels, which the little ones at the opening found hilarious, there are whole numbers that carry hidden messages only grownups will get. When we fast-forward to Nadia's 18th birthday, we get treated to "Don't Get Stuck." This number has all the characters worried about the curse, trying to keep Nadia from pricking her finger and singing about how no woman ever wants to get stuck with "a little prick." And as Lily Longweed, Nadia's nanny and an ex-nun, a gender-bending Jimmy F. Phillips cracks all sorts of wise.
Panto Sleeping Beauty has a couple of weaknesses. Most of the songs are simply not as good as the rest of the show. Also, it clocks in at close to three hours. While all of it is funny, there's a lot that isn't essential to the story line and could be cut. Still, three hours fly by quickly when you are having as much fun as this Panto inspires. Even the tiniest kids were still awake when the actors came out for their curtain call.
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