No snoozing here: This 'Sleeping Beauty' is gearing up for a wild ride

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Friday, February 23, 2024

No snoozing here: This 'Sleeping Beauty' is gearing up for a wild ride
A rehearsal of "Sleeping Beauty,” a holiday pantomime in the British tradition, at Abrons Arts Center in New York on Nov. 28, 2023. ‘Panto’ are broadly comic versions of classic fairy tales that incorporate cheeky topical references, groan-inducing puns, an eye-popping color palette, raucous audience interaction, and liberal amounts of cross-dressing. (Amy Lombard/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- It was the first time the cast members of “Sleeping Beauty” were rehearsing in their costumes, and they were amped up. “The energy is palpable!” director Julie Atlas Muz said late last month as the actors gathered onstage at the Abrons Arts Center.

They would need that energy, too. “We run like a steam train when it goes well,” said writer Mat Fraser, who is also Muz’s husband. “And that’s how it has to be.”

This “Sleeping Beauty,” after all, is a pantomime, a British theatrical holiday tradition that, at its best, is fast and furious and hilarious.

Muz’s first time at a panto, as they are called, was a revelation. “I was like, ‘What is this?’” she said. “I thought it was like a punk-rock concert for kids.”

Fraser, who is British, introduced Muz, a Detroit native, to the daffy world of pantos — broadly comic versions of classic fairy tales that incorporate such staples as cheeky topical references, groan-inducing puns, an eye-popping color palette, raucous audience interaction, popular songs boasting rewritten lyrics, and liberal amounts of cross-dressing.

“I grew up watching my mum be principal boy and my dad often be the baddie,” said Fraser, 61. “Panto is ingrained in my childhood. It was what inspired me to want to do theater.”

The couple have had active careers in the theatrical, burlesque and nightlife scenes, but since 2017 they have carved out a niche as the rare people who have been able to crack the panto code in the United States. “Sleeping Beauty” is their third original production at Abrons Arts Center (where it’s running from Saturday to Dec. 24) as part of the Panto Project, following “Jack and the Beanstalk” in 2017 and “Dick Rivington & the Cat” in 2021.

Unlike many seasonal offerings, the pantos are not just dropped into the schedule but completely integrated into Abrons’ organization and mission. The institution actually plays a role in the life of Muz and Fraser, who live nearby and got married in 2012 on the playhouse’s stage. Muz, 50, also performed in the Basil Twist show “Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds,” a commission to celebrate Abrons’ 100th anniversary in 2015. “I played the ghost of one of the founding sisters and I still really identify with Irene Lewisohn,” she said. “I talk to her and thank her every night.” (Twist handles the Panto Project’s puppet design.)

Many of the panto actors — including the children who make up the “babes chorus” — have taken acting classes at Abrons, and 100 free tickets for each panto performance are distributed to people who participate in the various programs run by Abrons’ parent organization, Henry Street Settlement. (The theater’s seating capacity is 240.) “There’s a commitment to making sure that the folks utilizing our services are also able to engage in what’s happening at the Arts Center,” Ali Rosa-Salas, vice president of visual and performing arts, said on the phone. (It’s worth noting that tickets otherwise cost a relatively affordable $41.)

While the previous Abrons pantos made hay of subjects like gentrification, rising prices and, on a more positive note, welcoming immigrants, “Sleeping Beauty” sticks more closely to the fairy-tale fantasy. “You can sense the cultural shifts,” Muz said, “and I think people need a little bit of escapism right now.”

The regular tale has been brushed up, with a Belle (Jordanna James) who gets to do a lot more than lie comatose for most of the story. And of course there are still sly nods to the here and now: A baddie goes by Evil Queen Karen (Muffy Styler) and the saucy traditional dame is called Jenny Lopez (Jonathan Rodriguez).

Fraser, who also plays the drums in the show’s band, keeps the repertoire of musical spoofs sharp, too. “I’m frustrated in British pantos when they go ‘Here’s one for the parents’ and it’s a Queen song,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Guys, Queen is for the grandparents! Parents were raving on ecstasy in the ’90s.’ So I like to modernize it and add stuff that would at first seem inappropriate, like ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica.”

While Fraser and Muz’s usual work tends to be for adult audiences, their pantos are family shows that manage to merge their cool-cat sensibility into the parameters of a genre so highly codified that it has preestablished call-and-response patterns involving the audience members. “They’re talking to you and screaming at you while you’re trying to deliver your lines,” said Jenni Gil, who plays Belle’s friend Lucky, and is in her third Abrons panto.

Gil’s experience as a teaching artist in public schools has trained her well to work with young people, but she admits that the pantos can be wild. “I had a moment in last year’s production of ‘Dick Rivington’ where we all had to be super-sad and all the kids were yelling ‘he didn’t do it!’” she said. “It took so much from all of us to not laugh. When we get offstage after those moments, we’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there is so much joy in theater.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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