Rule No. 1 of British “panto”: Be ready to play and sing along. No, go ahead. You’ll enjoy it.
The panto is a traditional form of British children’s theater that pops up at the holidays. A little naughty, a whole lot nice, pantos are typically based on familiar fairytales and myths whose plotlines are easy to adapt. Theatre Britain has a new one, Jackie Mellor-Guin’s King Arthur, a silly gender-switched musical retelling of the Camelot story. The audience is part of the show, asked to sing, yell “boo” at the villains and warn of any meandering ghosts. (“It’s behind you!” “No, it’s not!” “Yes, it is!”)
Rule No. 2 of panto: The leading lady, known as the “dame” role, is always played in broadest possible comedy style by a man in drag. For King Arthur, beanpole Ivan Jones rocks a bright pink frock and cotton-candy-pink ringlets as “Nanny Chit Chat,” a Medieval gossipmonger who flirts with men in the audience and utters double entendres to make the grown-ups giggle. To the knights of Camelot she says, “You should be standing erect in the jousting area!” Wink, nudge.
Theatre Britain founder and director Sue Birch stages her annual pantos with a sharp eye for good casting (her best “dame” ever was Mark Shum, who now works at Stage West). The details are eye-popping in her gorgeous storybook-style sets (King Arthur’s is by designer Darryl P. Clement) and punch-colored costumes (by Tory Padden, with wigs by Don Hall). The little thrust stage in the Cox Building Playhouse affords clear audience views from every seat, the better to spot a ghost lurking in the scary forest.
Rule No. 3: The leading man in a panto is always portrayed by a girl. The young hero in King Arthur, in this case the future king of England, is played with pluck by Dixie Carroll. In Mellor-Guin’s version, Arthur has been raised by an ordinary family in the English countryside. His boon companion is Poofy the Magic Dragon, a gentle creature who can’t breathe fire or talk. (Wearing adorable dragon drag, Robin Clayton is terrif.)
Rule No. 4: There’s always a villain. In King Arthur she’s Morgana la Fey (Jennifer Stoneking, glowering with marvelous eyebrows painted on), who wants to keep young Arthur off the throne. Good vibes prevail, however, with characters Guinevere (Emmalyn Miron), Kaye (Michael Speck), Merlin (Joey Dietz) and Lancelot (Jake Shanahan, getting loads of laughs with his strutting in “The Tournament of Poses” bit) securing the future of the Round Table.
The singing Lady of the Lake, here called Soggyanna (Charli Armstrong, working every bit of it), rises from the rippling waters of Camelot, just like she does in Spamalot. The songs in King Arthur aren’t memorable and the lyrics don’t always scan or rhyme right, but the music is happy and peppy, keeping the show rolling along.
Rule No. 5: A ghost (Jared Seman) will appear and you have to yell out warnings to the hero. Later some glow-in-the-dark butterflies and birds will flutter by between scenes. You don’t need to yell at those.
You and the kiddos will have a jolly good time at King Arthur. Just remember to follow the rules, including buying some British chocolate and “crisps” from the concession stand at intermish.
King Arthur continues through December 27 at Theatre Britain, Cox Building Playhouse, 1517 H. Ave., Plano. Tickets $11-$21 at 972-490-4202 or theatre-britain.com.