When I heard Kenn McLaughlin was mounting another Panto extravaganza at Stages Repertory Theatre, this time with his own name on the book and lyrics, I wanted to shout, "Hey Kenn, You're not a Brit, you're from Cleveland."
But that was before I heard McLaughlin's baptism tale in the way of the Panto. Should you be a clueless sort like I was until week ago, Panto is an unruly, designed for screaming kids, British form of vaudevillian holiday entertainment. They say it dates back to Italian commedia dell arte, with strong ties to 18th century actor John Rich. No one really knows for sure. It's wildly popular in the UK, and if McLaughlin has anything to do with it, soon to be wildly popular in Houston.
The Stages artistic director's Panto story starts with Emma Jacobs, a British board member, who instinctively knew that McLaughlin would fall in love with this particularly zany brand of theater. Jacobs flew him to London, put him up in glorious digs, arranged for him to meet with key Panto-ologists, and to see all the top shows. Five minutes into his first he was hooked.
One of the experts asked him the big question. "What is Panto?"
"It's about developing empathy and innocence," replied the savvy director.
McLaughlin nailed it.
Next question. "How big is your theater?"
Turns out 175 was the wrong answer and McLaughlin was told point blank Panto could not be done in Stages' cozy quarters. It's a theater the size of the Old Vic or the highway.
You would think the story would end there, but if you translate the sentence, "It can't be done" into McLaughlin-ese, it means, "Let's do it." He possesses the right combo of fearless nuttiness, can do Texas-via-Ohio spirit, and relentless determination to pull if off. Obstacles are just opportunities for this always smiling guy.
The plot thickened when McLaughlin got a call from Gregg Coffin trying to interest him in his Iraq play.
"We just did an Iraq play. Do you happen to know where I could get my hands on a Panto Cinderella?" he asked.
"Yep, I wrote one," replied Coffin. Talk about wacky coincidences.
Last season's Panto Cinderella turned out to be such a huge success, McLaughlin decided to make Panto a Stages holiday tradition. As for his foray into both writer and director for Panto Sleeping Beauty, it's just the next step in McLaughlin's Panto-ization.
"It's a big risk I know, and the largest production we have ever mounted," he says, with a sly Cheshire grin. With a score by David Nehls, a cast of 18, outrageous sets by Jodi Bobrovsky, wild lights by Jeremy Choate, McLaughlin has gathered a stellar team.
Stages even imported a real Panto star, Genevieve Allenbury, to play "Mrs. Makeitup."
So Houston get ready to get Panto-ized. Bring your kids, or rent some, your innocence, your ability to boo at the villain and be prepared to yell "cake" a lot.
Apologies may be in order to my fellow row mates for the decibel level of my yelling when I saw it a couple of weeks ago. I was just following Panto protocol.
Years from now, I imagine the Panto entry in Wikipedia with a subsection on Texas Panto. McLaughlin will be listed as the founder.
Crazier things have happened.
Panto Sleeping Beauty continues through January 3 at Stages Repertory Theatre.