"If you see something, say something," isn't usually a guideline for audiences at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, and they don't typically yell back at characters on stage. But during The Musicians of Bremen: A Holiday Panto, viewers are welcome to boo and hiss when the bad guy comes on stage, and they're encouraged to warn characters who might not see the villain lurking in the shadows.
"Yell, 'He's behind you,'" instructs Bob Edes Jr. as Holly Daze, who introduces the show and is a character in the comedy based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale about animals who want to become musicians.
A panto is a dramatic form (popularized in Britain) that combines physical comedy and silly action for children and humor aimed over their heads at accompanying adults. Pantos typically feature local references, and Bremen has them for both young and mature audiences. Participation via yelled warnings and other solicited contributions is part of the fun.
Le Petit Theater artistic director Maxwell Williams scheduled a panto in last year's season, and it harks to the theater's past creating polished professional productions for young audiences on its Children's Corner stage. In January, Williams co-directed Sleeping Beauty: An American Panto, in which Edes starred as Widow Chockablock. Fairy tale princess stories are commonly made into pantos, says Jon Greene, who wrote the script for Sleeping Beauty.
"A panto is merriment and joy, and it's ribald and silly," Greene says.
Greene wrote and directs The Musicians of Bremen, using parts of the original story to tell a contemporary tale. In the classic version, four animals leave their farm in Germany for the city of Bremen, where they plan to play music. But the donkey, dog, cat and rooster never make it to Bremen. They find an empty farmhouse and move in, which is where versions of the story start to differ as humans return to the home.
In Greene's story, the animals not only made it to the city long ago, they've become talented musicians with their own band. Morry Mule (Keith Claverie) is the drummer and bandleader. Kitty Kat (Ashley Rose Bailey) sings and plays a tiny banjo. Rickie Rooster (Clint Johnson) plays keyboards and is easily annoyed by poultry jokes. Daryl Dog (Willing Bowling) is a skilled fiddler who is sheepishly honest.
The band is happy to have a regular gig at a nightclub owned by Holly Daze. Although it's in a hip neighborhood, Holly is behind on the rent and the club is struggling. What Holly and the band don't know is that someone wants the club closed down. Children may not understand that a cultural beacon doesn't necessarily have the same return on investment as something like a shiny new farm-to-table restaurant. There are no Grimm fairy tales about gentrification. The Bremen plot thickens when a mysterious new arrival in town (Garrett Prejean) reveals his underhanded plan to put the club out of business. That his sidekick is a rat named Rodney (Mike Spara) is a giveaway that he's up to no good.
The animals come up with a plan to help Holly Daze keep her club open, and they are aided by a familiar local figure. With a little help from young audiences, they may be able to keep the music going.