By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Beneath the groaning puns, audience singalongs and glow-in-the-dark puppets, Theatre Britain's annual Christmas "panto," The Three Little Pigs, offers some cunningly subversive comedy. Good pantos always do.
It's taken 16 years for Theatre Britain, now based at the Cox Building Playhouse in Plano, to educate the audience about this style of children's show, a traditional offering on U.K. stages at holiday time. Full houses on opening weekend this year are proof the panto habit has finally caught on.
Certain conceits apply to all pantos. There must be a "dame" role played broadly by a man in drag. There must be clean, corny jokes aimed at kids and subtly dirty gags to amuse the parents. It all must be acted with high-energy frivolity and big smiles, and maybe a sneer here and there toward annoying elements of pop culture. (Kevin Bacon, they're oinking at you.) From between the lines in this one emerges a hint of mildly trenchant social commentary about self-entitled millennial children. But not so much that it detracts from the delightful nonsense of the fractured fairytale.
The Three Little Pigs, written, as are all of Theatre Britain's pantos, by transplanted Brit Jackie Mellor-Guin, ticks off all the requirements of every panto, including the scary ghost ("It's behind you!" "No, it's not!" "Yes, it is!") and the triumph of a young male hero named Jack, played in tights and boots by a pretty girl (Marla Jo Kelly). It even allows some leeway for its dame character to interact with the crowd. Dads, if you sit on the front row, prepare to be teased, flirted with and possibly sat upon.
Theatre Britain founder and artistic director Sue Birch has gathered actors for this one who are all cute as a pig's tail — and three of them are wearing just that. This version of the old fable is cowboyed up and delivered with tons of twang. Playing the dame called Miss Slightly Dotty, actor Billy Betsill sports a neon green wig and a huge ball gown with cowboy boot sleeves and a picket fence hem. "What is this, some sort of flash mob?" the character snorts to the audience on her first entrance.
Dotty's piglet sons — Hector (Eduardo Sneed), Harold (Stephen Warren) and Hamish (Glenn Averoigne) — are so lazy and spoiled, she's kicking them out of the family sty. They divvy up building materials for their own homes, taking plans for straw, stick and brick manses down to Patty Permit (Shannon Atkinson), a city bureaucrat who moonlights as a stand-up comic.
A trio of lady wolves (Erin McGrew, Emily Rahm, Deanne Lauvin) get huffy and puffy about the piggies' new houses. A stand-off happens in a hammy showdown twixt wolves and swine. (The scenery by Darryl P. Clement is storybook gorgeous, from the painted floor to the vivid backdrop and the fold-up piglet dwellings. Candy-colored costumes are by Michelle Schmidlkofer and Birch.) But happy endings for all are guaranteed. Wink, nudge, wink, nudge.
All the performances are tuned to panto level, thanks to Birch's deft direction, but the standout is Betsill as the pigs' mommy Dotty. The show's lots funnier when he's hogging the spotlight.