Friday, March 27, 2015

Review: 'Treasure Island: A Musical Panto'

It's that time again -- "panto" time at People's Light and Theatre Company in Malvern. This year, they're doing an update of their first zany take on "Treasure Island." Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Treasure Island: A Musical Panto'

Blog Image
The cast of People's Light and Theatre Company's "Treasure Island: A Musical Panto," with Joilet Harris in front. Photo by Michael Ogborn. At People’s Light & Theatre through January 8th. Photo by Mark Garvin.

By Howard Shapiro

Let me hear you say arrrrrrrrrgh!

Not loud enough.

Let me hear you say arrrrrrrrgh!

Much better. An all-puropose interjection, primarily associated with pirates, it could mean yes, no, maybe, or nothing at all. At People's Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, where a twisted and slick version of Treasure Island: A Musical Panto opened Saturday night, it means Big Fun.

Treasure Island is this year's holiday panto - the company's big-money draw modeled after the British theatrical holiday tradition that beckons the audience to cheer, boo, scoff, applaud and otherwise conspire in an outrageously reworked version of a well-known tale, complete with local references. People Light is the American holder of the musical panto's cache - no other professional theater here is known to make the theatrical form a company trademark.

But this year's eighth panto production is a bit different for the company - it marks the first time People's Light is repeating a panto, all of which have been original, written by company member Kathryn Petersen. Treasure Island was produced four years ago, and Petersen and Michael Ogborn, who wrote the score, took it apart, added new stuff that includes songs and put it under he stewardship of Pete Pryor, the company's newly appointed associate artistic director and also the ship's captain in the show.

The transformation is enormously satisfying - Treasure Island is now more of a full-scale romp, just what you'd expect from a panto: no trick in the book, even the lowly banana peel bit, is too cheap or fatigued, and any excuse for a laugh is good enough for the script, the lyrics and the uncredited choreography.

You have your quartet of pirates (Andrew Kane, Justin Jain, Jefferson Haynes and the ever-funny, compact Chris Faith) led by the totally boo-able Long John Silver (the wonderfully expressive Richard Ruiz) and accompanied by his acid-mouthed parrot (Amadea Martino Smith). Then there's the squire who's leased the ship (Tom Teti) to search for a buried treasure, with his posse (Susan McKey, Rachel Brennan, Michael Doherty).

Mark Lazar, who spends much of his Decembers in an assortment of outrageous dresses, plays the mother of one of the passengers - he is by now as much a trademark of the pantos as the pantos are a trademark of People's Light. And the terrific Joilet Harris is Mama Kura, a role I'll not even attempt to explain.

In fact, I won't try to describe the goofy plot at all. It probably has Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote the novel that inspires all this, scratching his head somewhere up there -- when he's not laughing.

For me, the most charming aspect of a good panto - all of which I know from watching People's Light in action -- is its sort of androgynous quality: it wink-winks at adults with a sort of louche insouciance, then wink-winks with a completely different eye at kids, who respond to its childlike sensibility but probably get 10 percent of the stuff aimed at the grownups.

There's plenty for old and young in Treasure Island, which had me laughing throughout. The stagecraft is also impressive: Rosemary E. McKelvey's costumes in wide-ranging styles (Mark Lazar is super-lucky to have such a couturier), James F. Pyne Jr's. ship and island sets, Michael Hahn's sound design and Thom Weaver's lighting. The fight choreographer is Samantha Bellomo - you have to have a chase and fight! --and shame on People's Light, the unsung musicians remain unsung in the program.

Now, everyone out there, let me hear you say ARRRRRGH!

I think you got it.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,,  or #philastage on Twitter.


Treasure Island: A Musical Panto: At People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, through January 8. Tickets: $35-$45. Information: 610-644-3500 or  


About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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