Director Robert Leembruggen and The British Players have created a delightfully funny and energizing interactive theater experience that is a not-miss this holiday season. Get thy backside to this theater immediately and be prepared to laugh. This pantomime production, although tailored for children to enjoy by becoming active participants in it, offers a wealth of humor for adults and little ones alike. The first area snowfall of the season was no deterrent, for the theater was full, with all age groups represented, for an around-the-hearthside holiday feel.
Pantomime, or panto, is a traditional British form of entertainment that, by design, provides an experiential theater experience. What better way than this to introduce and instill appreciation for theater arts in the lives and hearts of our children for the future? The audience completes the play in any production, by the exchange of energy with the actors and by creating a new perspective one might carry forward in their lives. Panto breathes life into that interaction by making theatergoers active participants in the hilarity and exaggerations, whether through booing a villain, shouting directions, or singing along. In this production, little theater-goers might even find themselves on stage.
In this panto production of Beauty and the Beast, Michelle Hessel graces us with her sensitive portrayal of Belle, the beauty who falls in love with the Beast/Prince Trueheart, played by Josh Beede. Beede uses the physical space of the stage very well to successfully make us believe he is, in fact, a beast, before revealing himself as Prince Trueheart. The romantic dance between Belle and the beast, when love is finally being realized, was elegant and moving.
Ian Grossman is magnificent as Belle’s sister, Smelle. In true panto style, as a man playing a female character, he generates much of the laughter and comedy throughout the play in the style of Milton Berle or Red Skelton, from what some may recall as the golden age of television. Grossman teams well with the talented Allan Brown and his addictive accent in the role of Claude, the father of Belle and Smelle.
Emily Alvarado, who recently moved back to the area and who is playing in her first pantomime with The British Players, is a pure delight as the fairy, Goody Two Shoes, and performs beautifully with a skillful voice in several musical numbers. Where there is a good fairy, we can always expect a bad one, or at least one pretending to be. Missi Tessier is hilarious and commanding as the big, bold, bad Fairy Bovver Boots, who has cast the evil spell on Prince Trueheart. Tessier proves especially skillful in creating effective audience interactions, both scary and funny, seemingly every bit as effortlessly as Carol Burnett.
The set design, by Mike Lewis and George Lucas, provided an ample balance to the setting without competing with the bold, rich characters, further expressed by dynamic color in excellent costume design by Nicola Hoag. Cathy Dunn’s delightfully charming makeup artistry helped to cast an air of magic and fantasy, as well as energize the characters with a blast of humor so well suited for panto.
Choreographer Stephanie Wesley skillfully orchestrated quite a large cast into several synchronistic numbers, so well in fact, that even the four-legged among them was moved to tap dance quite impressively. (It should be noted that perhaps we have not seen a pantomime horse as well integrated into a story since Christopher Guest’s in “Family Tree,” the HBO comedy, starring Christopher O’Dowd.) Music director Chuck Hoag and his musicians were kept busy by superbly helping to keep the flow of action via sound and song.
Beauty and Beast is a timeless classic tale, with multi-layered meaning. Performed in panto style, we are able to laugh and sing our way through jokes and gags while being gently guided to see our true selves. It is perhaps in these times, as we struggle to shed our cultural separateness, that this type of theater holds the most value for bringing us together as one. This well-crafted production will leave you feeling the joy and abundance that comes with recognizing ourselves in the eyes and hearts of others.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Beauty and the Beast plays through December 17, 2017, at Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, Kensington, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 447-9863, purchase online or by order form.