ABOVE: The cast of Sleeping Beauty, the second annual holiday Panto at the Presidio Theatre. BELOW: Cast members include (from left), Phoebe Angeni as Major Major, Scott Reardon as Embarkadero and Curt Branom as Julia the Cook. Photos by Terry Lorant
How do you start what you hope will become a new holiday tradition? Persistence and pluck – at least that seems to be how the Presidio Theatre is going about it as they attempt, for a second year, to make the British tradition of Panto a thing stateside (or at least in the Bay Area).
The Panto (short for pantomime) is a raucous family entertainment trotted out for the holidays that redecorates a crusty fairy tale with amped-up fabulousness: exaggerated, colorful costume; ditzy pop songs with re-written lyrics; lots of daffy gender-bending; abundant audience participation; and heaps of silliness.
Last year, as part of the beautifully renovated Presidio Theatre’s return from Covid hibernation, the company offered a Panto in the form of a Bay Area-based Aladdin (read my review here), and while that was a lot of fun, Sleeping Beauty, which I finally caught up with just before Christmas, is even better.
For one thing, director Liam Vincent and writers Stephanie Brown and Richard Ciccarone bring even more zip and zest. The show is shorter (just about two hours, including intermission) and moves along at a terrific comic clip.
The highly energetic cast is matched in vibrancy only by the stunning costumes by Alina Bokovikova. Nobody makes a better chicken costume, and this year, Bokovikova also gets to dress a talking dog, a trio of fairies and the juiciest villain this side of Maleficent (only with devilish red horns instead of black).
The juiciest roles are the showiest, including Rotimi Agbabiaka as Hernia the Evil Witch, and Curt Branom as Julia the Cook. Their performances are outsize and truly funny. Their interactions with the audience are among the show’s highlights, and the night I saw the show, the audience was way more than willing to talk back, shout back and truly give their all to catch the candy that is frequently thrown at their heads.
The story of this sleeping beauty, one Princess Sonoma (Sharon Shao), makes very sure that should the curse of her falling into eternal sleep ever come true, Prince Logan (Matthew Kropschot) has her full consent to kiss her back to life. With that detail taken care of, the production has free reign to be goofy as all get out. The fairies who have to muster their strength to fight Hernia are a delight: Ruby Day is Orinda, Ryan Patrick Welsh is Fremont and Eiko Yamamoto is Pacifica. These marvelous Bay Area names also extend to the trio of chickens which, as they did last year, threaten to steal the show. Andre Amarotico is Pecker, and the hens are Phaedra Tillery Boughton as Mission Burrito, Jen Brooks as Sourdough and Kaylee Miltersen is Cioppino.
At the performance I saw, the venerable Danny Scheie was out as Major Major, the palace’s stern taskmaster, and assistant director Phoebe Angeni was in without missing a beat or a laugh. That’s one of the keys to a successful Panto – making it seem breezy and effortless with a continuous roll of laughs, and dancing and dazzle. The Panto doesn’t have anything to do per se with the holidays, but that carefree, let-it-all-go vibe is key to capturing the holiday spirit that is so hard to find in real life.
Happily, it seems that local audiences are taking a shine to the Panto. The tradition is taking hold, and the Presidio Theatre could be in the Panto business for many years, many jokes, many chickens and many chucked chocolates to come.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sleeping Beauty continues through Dec. 30 at the Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave., in The Presidio San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$40 (subject to change). Call 415-960-3949 or visit presidiotheatre.org.