On Stage: A fun ‘Panto’ from People’s Light

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times 

Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto

When the Christmas holidays arrive, it means it’s also time for a panto arrive at People’s Light (39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, peopleslight.org). This year, it’s “Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto,” which is running now through January 1, 2023.

Each year, the People’s Light holiday panto transforms a beloved children’s story into a musical extravaganza filled with outrageous characters, toe-tapping original music, slapstick comedy, and topical humor for both kids and adults.

If you’re wondering what a “panto” is – here’s the answer.

Emerging from commedia dell’arte, the Twelfth Night holiday, and the Festival of Fools, the Christmas “pantomime” dates back to the 18th century and remains the most popular theatre form in Great Britain. In a single year, 19 pantos played in London and 187 in the rest of the country. Over the past two decades, People’s Light has tailored the British form into its own unique brand of holiday hilarity, attracting thousands of visitors every holiday season.

Traditionally, pantos typically take a well-known fairy tales or other favorite children’s story and turn it on its ear. Favorite stories, which have inspired countless different pantos, are Aladdin, Robin Hood, Cinderella, Dick Wittington, Jack and the Beanstalk, Mother Goose, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks and Snow White.

These familiar stories form the basis for exaggeration, variation and topical social commentary, as well as outrageous jokes, humorous songs, sprightly dances and, sometimes, a strangely affecting love story. The tradition has developed some fairly rigid conventions of plotting, casting and story.

Here are some of the familiar elements that audiences at People’s Light have come to relish: The Dame: a boisterous yet benevolent matriarch played by a man in a fabulous dress; a hero (sometimes played by a woman); a heroine; and a stock villain; “Skin roles,” animal pals who help our hero in his or her adventures; a comic duo; A basic story that explores themes of love, friendship, and good vs. evil; music, dance, and slapstick; audience participation: boo, cheer, even argue with the characters onstage; satire of local events, government policies, and famous people; a “slosh scene” or “messy bit”: a slapstick routine with something wet, gooey, and/or slippery; a “candy bit”: the actors throw candy into the audience, sometimes by the villain’s lackeys to get information about the hero; and silly songs that the audience joins in singing.

Since the 18th century, audiences have gathered in droves to enjoy the songs, jokes, costumes and treats of this Christmas celebration. At People’s Light, they are having great fun joining this tradition and adjusting it to the theater’s culture and aesthetic.

The beloved holiday tradition returns to People’s Light with the world premiere of “Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto.” The show, which is directed by Bill Fennelly, features book by Jennifer Childs and music and lyrics by Alex Bechtel.

On her first day of middle school, Alice Liddle stumbles upon a strange book in the library and ends up in a mysterious, magical place. Audiences are urged to cheer the heroes, boo the bad guys, and help Alice find her way home in this panto-tastic take on Lewis Carroll’s madcap classic.

As “the nation’s primary creator of such specialized tomfoolery” (Newsworks) for almost two decades, People’s Light has adapted the theatrical form of British pantomime into its own unique brand of holiday hilarity. Audiences of all ages gather to partake in the songs, dances, topical jokes, and jovial camaraderie of this longstanding tradition.

This year, People’s Light is welcoming two Philadelphia icons to the panto family — comedy legend Jennifer Childs writes the book and award-winning drag performer Eric Jaffe is the audience’s new guide through the magical mayhem – and two veterans — Bill Fennelly, who also directed 2019’s “Little Red Robin Hood,” and composer/lyricist Alex Bechtel, who penned the music and lyrics for 2016’s “Sleeping Beauty” and has appeared as an actor in multiple past pantos.

The People’s Light panto is entertainment for the entire family, and the audience is part of the action.

“It’s a family event,” said Childs, during a phone interview last week. “It has something for all ages. There are opportunities in panto for audience interaction. There are contemporary references. It keeps it very live. This is my first panto. I’ve seen several pantos but I’ve never been in one.”

Playwright Jennifer Childs is co-founder of 1812 Productions, which is the only professional theatre company in the country dedicated to comedy.

“My work with 1812 is an overlap,” said Childs. “Our shows are very audience participatory. 1812 is an all-comedy theater company. We perform established works, and we also make our own works. It’s like The Daily Show meets The Carol Burnett Show.”

Laughter is a recurring theme in Childs’ work.

According to Childs, “While this is my first time writing a panto, I’ve discovered a lot of similarities between the panto form and my work at 1812 Productions. And I love that the panto addresses real things that kids experience, like starting a new school, in a fun and engaging way.”

“Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto” has been in the works for quite a while.

“It was supposed to happen in 2019 – before COVID hit,” said Childs. “We kept working and working.”

Finally, live theater came back to life late last year.

Last December, People’s Light presented a world premiere of “A Christmas Carol” – a version of “A Christmas Carol” adapted from Charles Dickens by Zak Berkman.

Featuring a lively mix of original songs and newly arranged 19th-century English carols, this music-infused retelling captured the magic, joy, and generosity of Dickens’ beloved classic.

But “A Christmas Carol” was not a panto. It featured music-filled, interactive fun for every age, but it lacked the necessary ingredients to be a panto.

“Live theater is still in the process of coming back to life – trying to keep our performers safe and keep our audiences safe,” said Childs. “People are eager to get out – eager for a community experience.

“There is a lot of audience interaction with panto. All of the characters interact with the audience. The audience members boo for the bad guys and cheer for the good guys.

“I used the Alice story as a jumping off point. It’s set in middle school. Alice is running away from a situation – similar to the ‘Wizard Oz.’ Why does she have to go to Wonderland? There is something specific she has to learn.”

Childs graduated for the University of Virginia with a degree in acting and then went to England where she worked in London and Oxford.

“When I left England, I came back to Philadelphia,” said Childs. “The city in the early 90s was a very good place for artists and actors.”

It also has been a very good place for comedic writers and performers.

“I’ve been involved with comedy for a long time,” said Childs. “Now, I’m trying panto.

“I come at panto with new eyes. With this show, we’ve honored the panto tradition and, at the same time, made it feel new and in the moment. The Dame is played by Eric Jaffe, an astonishing performer and drag queen.

“This is a very inclusive show. The extra sparkle is born out of this. We want a really joyful explosion.”

The show at People’s Light will through January 1. Ticket prices start at $47.

On November 18, Kennett Flash (102 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Square, 484-732-8295, http://www.kennettflash.org) is presenting a show with an international flavor and a local touch.

Antje Duvekot

The headliner is singer/songwriter Antje Duvekot, who was born and raised in Germany. The opening act is Barry Rabin, a singer/songwriter who was born and raised in Coatesville.

Duvekot was born in Germany and spent her younger years in Heidelberg. She moved to the United States when she was 14. Since then, she has also lived in New York City and a small town on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brasil. She now resides in Lincoln, Massachusetts – a Boston suburb.

“I came to America with my mom when I was 14,” said Duvekot. “She had been teaching at the University of Heidelberg but then decided to get divorced from my dad. I had never been to the states before, but she was coming back to her home country.

“We moved to Greenville, Delaware and it was a very difficult time for me. I was in high school, but I didn’t really understand the language. My first musical influences were German folk songs. I only discovered radio and pop music when I came over here.

“I started writing songs when I was in high school. Then, I went to college and was majoring in history at the University of Delaware. I did my first performances when I was in college – playing shows in dorms and also at a little coffee shop in Newark.”

Duvekot has extensive touring experience, crisscrossing the US and Europe many times. She is a compelling live performer and has been invited to play some of the top festivals including The Newport Folk Festival as well as the Mountain Stage, Philadelphia and Kerrville Festivals. Internationally, she’s headlined the The Celtic Connections Festival in Scotland and the Tonder Festival in Denmark.

She’s the winner of some of the top songwriting awards, including the Grand Prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, the prestigious, Kerrville (TX) “Best New Folk Award” and, in one of the nation’s top music markets, the Boston Music Award for “Outstanding Folk Act”, three of the top prizes in the singer songwriter world.

Duvekot’s first album “Little Peppermints” was a live CD released in 2002. The album was filled with strong songs – tunes with insightful lyrics and pleasant melodies. It was a disc that served as an introduction to Duvekot’s impressive potential as both a singer and a songwriter.

The same year, Duvekot toured with the Irish group Solas. Impressed with Duvekot’s songwriting talent, Solas recorded two of her songs — “The Poisonjester’s Mask” and “Black Annis” — on their album “The Edge of Silence.”

Duvekot followed “Little Peppermints” with another live album, “Boys, Flowers, Miles” in 2005. She released “Big Dream Boulevard” on Black Wolf Records in 2006. In 2008, Black Wolf released “Snapshots.”

“The ‘Snapshots’ album was a compilation of the two live albums,” said Duvekot. “My first real studio album was ‘Big Dream Boulevard.’ I also had another live album in 2011.”

From 2009-2016, Duvekot recorded three more albums – “The Near Demise of the Highwire Dancer” (2009), “New Siberia” (2012) and “Toward the Thunder” (2016).

“My most recent album was ‘Toward the Thunder’,” said Duvekot. “I’m working on a new album now tobe released in February or March. It’s pretty far along. We’re in the mixing stage now. It’s toward the end of the process. Most of the album was recorded in my closet and other friends’ houses. I use Logic and I use a producer – Mark Erelli. He plays a lot of different instriuuments on the album  — drums, bass, guitar. It’s more a full band sound , but some are a little more acoustic. It’s a mix.”

Like many musicians, Duvekot had extra time to write because of the lockdown.

“I wrote a lot during the pandemic,” said Duvekot. “The lockdown gave me time to write – but I don’t think I wrote about the pandemic.”

Duvekot’s writing deals with life in a personal way.

“I used to write more political songs, but my last two albums were more personal,” said Duvekot.

“I write on guitar – it’s my only instrument. Mostly, the music comes first and then that tells me what the lyrics should be. I do have agendas of what I want to say.

“It’s all very personal – songs about experience. That’s the reason I started writing. It’s always been very cathartic for me. It does put me in a bit of a vulnerable position, but it feels good to be honest. And, since it’s through music, I can get detached.”

Video link for Antje Duvekot – https://youtu.be/QvWgGu97Zeg.

Barry Rabin

Barry Rabin is a singer/songwriter who was born and raised in Coatesville. He now lives in West Chester and is a wills/estate lawyer with an office in Downingtown.

Rabin graduated from Coatesville Area High School in 1974 and the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. He went on to get his law degree from Delaware Law School in Wilmington.

“After college, I got bored and started playing music,” said Rabin, during a phone interview Wednesday evening.

“I had a friend who had a garage in Unionville and would have people over every Tuesday night to pay together rinthe garage loft.

“I started doing that and it was fun. I began writing funny songs.

“Another friend told me about open mic nights that O’Friels Irish Pub in Wilmington held once a month. I tried that. I played songs and people liked them.

“So, I continued writing songs and making music. I play folk music and perform at a lot of different folk clubs. I’ve also performed at the Philadelphia Folk Festival five times.”

Rabin’s most recent performance was at the 2022 Philadelphia Folk Festival back in August.

“I just enjoy writing songs and performing songs,” said Rabin. “I love opening for people. And I still do pretty much do all funny songs.”

The show at Kennett Flash on November 18 will start at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $20.

Other upcoming shows at Kennett Flash are The D Corridori Project on November 19, Jazz Jam on November 27, Dead Flowers on December 3, and Bryan Tuk Project on December 10.

The Rose Tree Pops Orchestra

The Rose Tree Pops Orchestra (rosetreepops.org) is presenting its fall concert, “A Film Lover’s Feast,” on November 20.

The group will perform its concert at 3 p.m. in the DeMoss Center for Worship and The Arts at Delaware County Christian School, which is located at 462 Malin Road in Newtown Square

The orchestra, conducted by Dr. Roberta Winemiller, plans to share a tuneful “feast” of film favorites. Selections from “Jurassic Park” and “Chicago” will have audience members humming along, and medleys from “The Lion King” and “Frozen” will delight both the young and young-at-heart.

Traditional classical pieces, such as Suppé’s “Light Cavalry Overture,” kick off the concert, and the group effortlessly transitions into Zawinul’s “Birdland” and Ellington’s “Take the A Train” to keep everyone’s toes tapping.

Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center (226 North High Street, West Chester, www.uptownwestchester.org) is presenting The Cartoon Christmas on December 6, and The Last Big Band Holiday Show on December 20.

The Sound Bank (119 South Main Street, Phoenixville, www.soundbankphx.com) will host Street Shuffle on November 18.

Phantom Power (121 West Frederick Street, Millersville, www.phantompower.net) will have Couch on November 18, Brass Monkeys on November 26, Local H on December 3, Maya de Vitry on December 9, and Aunt Mary Pat on December 29.

Colonial Theater (227 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, thecolonialtheatre.com/events) is hosting Jessica Lynn on December 9.

Bruce Hornsby and his band will headline a show at the Scottish Rite Auditorium (315 White Horse Pike, Collingswood, New Jersey, scottishriteauditorium.com) on November 17. The South Jersey venue will also host Tower of Power on November 19.

The Met (858 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, http://themetphilly.com) will host Michelle Obama on November 18.

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