Theatre Review: Players tell a great story with latest panto

Published 2:45 pm Thursday, December 8, 2022

By Jes Simmons

Youngsters and those who are young-at-heart in Farmville and surrounds are in for a December treat as Mary Jo Stockton directs the Waterworks Players’ annual pantomime. This season features the delightful and fun-filled panto The Little Mermaid, featuring 24 wonderful cast members, including beloved Waterworks actors as well as newcomers to the stage. You’ll be treated to a delightful blend of fairy tale retelling and modernizing, plus eye-rolling jokes and banter, dancing, and singing. The give-and-take of energy and enthusiasm–as audience members and actors interact with good-natured teasing and taunting, booing and cheering–succeeds in creating the dizzying and dazzling absurdity both on and off stage.

This year’s panto is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” (1837) by Andrew O’Leary, a contemporary Irish actor and director who has written for the Wexford Pantomime Society in Ireland for over two decades. O’Leary’s panto adaptations and retellings include fairy tales and classic stories such as Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Pinocchio, The Snow Queen, The Frog Prince, Rapunzel, and others. Allowable within panto productions is inserting the names of businesses and locales in Farmville and surrounds into the script. Keep your ears open for these.

Because a holiday panto is such a zany production that includes encouraging the audience to be part of the performance, each actor in this special ensemble deserves a wee bit of spotlight.

Jordan Whiley as the Dame – the historical heart of pantomime – is superb as Gladys Bonkers. And, yes, her last name wonderfully captures her spirit. Jordan’s appeal and knack for improvisation not only gets the kids in the audience to interact with her character, but also sweeps up their parents and other adults in the fun.

As zany Jules and Verne, Elijah and Kolby Logue are an absolute delight. They transcend every scene with expressive and physical comedy so reminiscent of the best of Vaudeville, and they use their uniquely innate comedic timing to work with and off of one another so seamlessly and energetically. Melissa Meinhard is the perfect blend of beguiling and scary as The Sea Witch whose stage presence is made even more powerful by her striking costume, long and wiggly fingernails, and arresting makeup.

Christy Moore brings infectious fun to the stage as rowdy and raucous Quentin the crab. Alex Perkins is a sweet delight as the mermaid Anemone who longs for the human world. Though spell-bound and mute for several scenes, she wonderfully emotes longing, fear, and joy.  Anemone’s father is played by Greg Tsigaridas, who commands the stage with unshakable and steadfast authority as Poseidon, Ruler of the Sea.

Reeves LaRoche plays Prince Alex with gentle sincerity, and John Ramsay is quite effective as Grimsby, the Prince’s sidekick. I hope both of these newcomers return to the Waterworks stage in the near future. Several performers convincingly play multiple roles. Ruth Holliday enhances her role of a seagull with a mime’s expressive movements, and her second role as a handmaid is charming. Sarah Varela and Patricia Carter work very well together as shipmates and as helpful handmaids to Anemone.

All of the younger actors on stage are a treat to watch. Those include Madelyn Schock, Grayson Clabo, and Cecilia Ramsay in multiple roles as fish, palace kids, and pirates, as well as Audrey Kott, Teagan McKinney, and Susan Cook as three sisters. Jack Green and Gregory Gibbs Jr. are happy Vikings, with Rowan Danielsen–now a panto regular–as the lead Viking who wonderfully leads the group’s Old Norse conversations that channel Sesame Street’s The Swedish Chef.

Erik Varela is a dangerous yet charming presence as Bluebeard the Pirate, accompanied by newcomer Sandra Sanders who embraces her role as First Mate Hicks with gusto and believability. Perennial Waterworks favorite Don Blaheta has a small but wonderfully droll role as a Seahorse.

As essential as the actors are to the performance, those who work behind the (ahem) scenes are also vital. Audrey Sullivan and Renée Segroves created four gorgeously rendered back panels that spin to create a world under the sea, a seashore, and a ship on the ocean. At one point, a wonderfully detailed palace backdrop is effectively employed, and Billy Tucker’s enormous rendition of a bathtub adds a Seussian touch. The lighting design by Mike Montgomery enhanced the audience’s awareness of being either underwater or on land. Those who are long-time fans and supporters of Waterworks might recognize a poignant nod to long-time Waterworks Technical Director Moffatt Evans, who recently passed away, as some of his work from other productions have subtly found their way onto the panto stage.

Many accolades must go to the costuming talents of Hannah Boswell, Maryska Connolly-Brown, Erika Evans, and LeeAnn Clabo-Schock for their wonderful wardrobes for pirates, mermaids, handmaids, Vikings, and their equally brilliant renditions of actors into a seahorse, a seagull, a crab, and multiple fish. Individual costumes are quite striking, especially those worn by the Sea Witch, Poseidon, Bluebeard, and the Gladys Bonkers.

Lastly, Director Mary Jo Stockton must be lauded, not only for this marvelous version of The Little Mermaid but also for gifting Farmville with consistently wonderful holiday pantomimes. As an actor in numerous Waterworks plays and a native of Scotland with firsthand knowledge of pantomimes, Mary Jo has earned the admiration and trust of the actors, and this enriches her panto productions. The result is fun and joy. You see it in the actors and in the audience.

You can catch the last weekend of The Little Mermaid pantomime on Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. For ticket information or directions, please go to the Waterworks website waterworksplayers.org/buytickets.