Panto-monium: don't snooze on this madcap 'Sleeping Beauty'

  • Tuesday November 22, 2022
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Jen Brooks, Phaedra Tillery Boughton, Andre Amarotico and Kaylee Miltersen <br>in 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Presidio Theatre. (photo: Terry Lorant)
Jen Brooks, Phaedra Tillery Boughton, Andre Amarotico and Kaylee Miltersen
in 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Presidio Theatre. (photo: Terry Lorant)

When you think about the prince in "Sleeping Beauty," it's unlikely that a certain purple Minnesotan comes to mind. And yet, when the curtains open on the second edition of Panto in the Presidio next Thursday (Dec. 1), a rousing parody of "Let's Go Crazy" —with new lyrics crafted by Stephanie Brown and Richard Ciccarone— will set the tone for a compound-fractured fairy tale suited to both little ones and adults with hyperactive inner children.

Inside jokes for locals, a cast and crew chockfull of "Beach Blanket Babylon" alumni, and an antic atmosphere of non-stop audience participation are the hallmarks of this emerging annual holiday tradition which began last December during one of our many whack-a-mole emergences from the coronavirus pandemic.

"I'd been wanting to bring London Palladium-style panto to San Francisco for years," said local arts patron and executive producer Peggy Haas in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "But the pandemic really kicked things into gear. It was just the right time to bring something so joyous and fun to the community.

"I always like to give my artists a mission statement when they begin the creative journey of putting a new show together. Last year with 'The Magic Lamp' it was about finding hope around you. This year is about reawakening."

That particular theme made the story of "Sleeping Beauty" an ideal choice explained director Liam Vincent: "When we were trying to figure out our follow-up, there was a lot of talk about 'Cinderella,' but I just didn't feel like the stakes were high enough.

"Yes, both Cindy and Sleepy have romantic elements, but given the recent pandemic Vincent loved the fact that 'Sleeping Beauty' is about a life and death situation. The witch (played with delicious wickedness by Rotimi Agbabiaka) is out to take the princess' life. Everyone who has been through the past couple of years can relate to the idea of falling into an endless sleep and then coming back to see the world anew."

Rotimi Agbabiaka as Hernia the Witch and Eiko Yamamoto as Pacifica the Fairy in the world premiere of 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Presidio Theatre. (photo: Terry Lorant)  

Unlike other holiday theater fare, be it "The Nutcracker" or "Frozen," the freewheeling, patchwork nature of panto —in which familiar stories and songs are scrappily reassembled rather than presented in familiar forms— leads to shows that are full of surprises.

"You'll have a snippet of classical music from Wagner," explained Vincent, "and then it's followed up with a little Doja Cat!"

The quick-shifting musical versatility required by the show is provided by music director and band leader Bill Keck, who held those same positions with "Beach Blanket Babylon" for 26 years. "Beach Blanket" DNA is also present in cast members including Curt Branum (the one-time pink-wigged Louis XIV now plays a female cook) and beloved 34-year Blanketeer Renée Lubin, who brings her diva pipes to the role of Queen Montgomery (her character's spouse is King Powell, natch).

Haas, who has been involved in local children's theater for decades, said that she particularly enjoys the multi-generational aspect of panto. "There are people who grow up in England seeing panto who then go back with their own kids and realize that there was a whole set of jokes that had gone flying over their heads when they were children."

"In 'Sleeping Beauty,' we're bringing back a rooster character from last year who happens to be named Pecker. I have an English friend who brought her five-year-old son last year and he kept pestering her about why the grownups kept laughing at that name until she finally had to explain it."

For director Vincent, who also worked on the show last year, the audience participation elements of the program (Audiences are provided with instructions on how, when and what to holler in that princely opening number 'Let's Go Panto!') are also a particular joy in the wake of the pandemic.

"Post-lockdown," he said, "I feel heartbroken when I see a kid in the theater who is looking at their phone screen. So it's wonderful to watch them get involved in the shouting and back talk that are integral to this form. Last year I just loved watching kids get into the show. Honestly, they were losing their minds!"

"That's something that doesn't happen at 'A Christmas Carol.'"

Panto in the Presidio: 'Sleeping Beauty,' Dec. 1-30. $10-$40. Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave. (415) 960-3949.

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