Pirates who'll buckle your swash

Mark Lazar is Mother Hawkins in the People's Light merry musical trashing of "Treasure Island," this year's entertaining holiday panto.
Mark Lazar is Mother Hawkins in the People's Light merry musical trashing of "Treasure Island," this year's entertaining holiday panto. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: November 22, 2011

Let me hear you say arrrrrr!

Not loud enough.

Let me hear you say arrrrrrrr!

Much better. An all-purpose interjection primarily associated with pirates, it could mean yes, no, maybe, or nothing at all. At People's Light and Theatre Company, 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's 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 has repeated one of its pantos, 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 material, including songs, and put it under the 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 always-funny, compact Chris Faith) led by the totally boo-able Long John Silver (the wonderfully expressive Richard Ruiz) and accompanied by his acid-tongued 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 tale that inspired all this, scratching his head somewhere up there, when he's not laughing.

For me, the most charming aspect of a good panto 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 grown-ups.

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! - but (shame on People's Light) the unsung musicians remain unsung in the program.

Now, everybody out there, let me hear you say ARRRRRR!

I think you got it.

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

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