Mash-Up 'Mime: Theatre Nova's "The Year Without a Panto Clause"
Around the holidays, theater troupes often feature classic Christmas plays familiar to Americans. But for the past two years, Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova has presented an American twist on a British Christmas tradition. A panto, short for pantomime, is a variety show that developed in England in the 18th century that employs song, dance, comedy, and much more to tell a Christmas-related story.
This year’s panto, The Year Without a Panto Clause, is written by Theatre Nova artistic director Carla Milarch and features original songs by the show’s music director, R. MacKenzie Lewis, who has composed music for Nova's previous two pantos as well as for last year’s hit musical Irrational.
I spoke with Milarch about the inspiration for her pantos and what makes this show unique.
Q: For readers that may not be familiar with the panto tradition, would you explain what different activities make up these performances?
A: I always describe a panto as a mash-up of a musical comedy, stand-up comedy, a vaudeville act, and an old-fashioned melodrama, with a heaping helping of The Three Stooges thrown in. There's a good deal of falling down, chases, booing the villain, cheering the hero, political humor, and jokes -- and, of course, candy for the kids.
Q: Theatre Nova has put on a panto for their holiday show for the last two seasons. Whose idea was it to showcase an art form that is rarely seen in the U.S.?
A: It was Emilio Rodriguez's (of Black and Brown Theatre and now UMS). He had seen a panto in Los Angeles and suggested it.
Q: How do you get the ideas for each show, and specifically, how did you come up with the story of this year’s show?
A: A traditional panto is based on a children's story, usually a fairy tale. In Britain, they do Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Dick Wittington and His Cat, among others. We wanted to put an American twist on ours, so we decided to narrow it down to Christmas stories that Americans would be familiar with. So far, we've done a twist on Rudolph (An Almost British Christmas), The Nutcracker (Sugar Plum Panto) and now The Year Without a Panto Clause.
Q: Can you talk a little about your collaboration process with R. MacKenzie Lewis? Does Lewis write some of the music for the shows?
A: Between our theater gigs and our kids, Lewis and I are some of the busiest people I know. So, we do a lot of work remotely. I come up with lyrics and ship them off to him; he tweaks them and writes the music and ships them to the actors. They learn them and I eventually hear them. It's unusual because I trust him so implicitly that I know whatever he does I will love. I literally have not heard some of the songs he's written for the show yet, but I know they will be fantastic!
Q: Do you both pick the popular songs that will be included in the narrative or does Lewis do it all himself?
A: I actually pick the popular songs as I'm writing the play because, usually, the inspiration for what's needed will hit me in the moment.
Q: During every performance of the show, there will be a different special guest performer who will be a small part of the variety act portion of the panto. Is this something unique to Nova’s pantos, or did this originate in England as well? Can you tell us some of the guests you’ve had in the past, and give us a preview of who we might expect this year?
A: This is all a part of the panto tradition. We have wonderful special guests this year. We're bringing back crowd favorites Gemini and magician Jeff Boyer as well as a lot of local theater folks you'll recognize from shows at NOVA and around town. I'm hearing rumors that Santa himself might make an appearance at some point in the run (the REAL Santa, not the one in the show!)
Q: What can audiences expect from this year’s panto, and what are you most excited for them to see?
A: The thing that I'm excited about the most this year, is that I think that this panto, in particular, holds up more as an actual play than the previous two. A panto is a very specific style, with lots of stuff in it that isn't your typical theater fare. In both past years I think we've been successful at creating a show that appeals to young kids, with lots of falling down, zaniness, etc. I've even had some Brits tell me it was "just like home!" This year, I think the play, although it maintains all of the zaniness, trust me, also has a thread of a touching and heartfelt story that is genuinely moving and carries you along in the more traditional theater vein.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this panto?
A: The premise of the play is that 2017 has been a bummer of a year, and Santa, like many of us, is starting to feel too depressed to carry on with life as usual. So, he decides to cancel Christmas. Jingle and Jangle the elves then set off on a hilarious journey to parts hither and yon to find some Christmas spirit to get Santa back in the saddle. Hilarity, zaniness, and musical comedy ensue. But I think at the core of the play is the genuine question we all feel of how we find hope in the world today. I think the play will give the audience some hope, but at the very least we'll give them a much-needed respite and a chance to laugh at our troubles, dance our cares away and focus in on the true spirit of the season. I'm happy with the way it turned out. I think audiences will be, too.
Emily Slomovits is an Ann Arbor freelance musician, theater artist, and writer. She plays music with her father and uncle (aka Gemini) and others, is a member of Spinning Dot Theatre, and has performed with The Encore Musical Theatre Company, Performance Network, and Wild Swan Theater.
“The Year Without a Panto Clause” runs Dec. 1-31 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. For tickets and more information, visit theatrenova.org.