Let the Dog Lie

Sleeping Beauty -- The Panto begins as five performers clad in medieval costumes flounce through a portal in the Nomad Theatre's faux-castle setting and sing, "It's a good day/How could anything go wrong?" Those words prove as prophetic as the merry goodbyes uttered by passengers boarding the Titanic.

Indeed, a few minutes later, a rather large man enters and strikes up a rendition of "On the Good Ship Lollipop," an episode that wouldn't seem quite so bizarre if the knobby-kneed, hairy-thighed crooner weren't sporting a pink mini-dress with white-fur hem, white high heels and matching hair bow. Then, a young man dressed in maroon tights gyrates to the strains of the theme song from Saturday Night Fever and lisps, "It's hip to zip" while fingering one of the many zippers that adorn his light green doublet. By the time we're treated to insipid jokes about the 303 area code and the castle's unseen poop deck, it's not hard to guess whether this oddball creation will rise to the level of enjoyable satire or continue sinking into uncharted idiocy.

It is, however, difficult to fathom just how low these short-selling comics will go in their efforts to scrape the bottom of the guffaw barrel. The two-and-a-quarter-hour work, which is being presented by Steinhauer-Heyer Productions, is an adaptation of the British "Panto," a type of variety act that uses familiar stories as backdrops for well-known songs, double entendres and topical references. Though the genre's roots can be traced as far back as the early eighteenth century (when two London theaters presented rival shows that borrowed heavily from the Italian commedia tradition), the Panto has been influenced by tavern shows, music hall revues and, more recently, drag routines. Although a Panto is typically tailored to suit populist sensibilities and tastes, this version goes far beyond that, mutating into a perverted hybrid of The Benny Hill Show, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and, far too frequently, The Bozo the Clown Show.

Despite the best efforts of the exuberant performers, director Terrianne Steinhauer-Heyer's "whatever goes" adaptation of Doreen Moger's script becomes the theatrical equivalent of tossing a sputtering chainsaw into a cesspool of sexual innuendo, cheap sight gags and tired references to the JonBenét Ramsey murder investigation. Given that practically every leading actor seems more interested in preening, prancing and making jokes about man-to-man encounters, the director should have put a completely different twist on this story about a doomed princess who will sleep in perpetuity if she's not kissed by a handsome prince -- who, so the legend goes, is willing to claw through layers of thorny brambles in exchange for a mere peck on the lips of a beautiful young girl.

Initially, the cross-dressing antics of Nanny Fanny (Richard Honey) and the bump-and-grind routine offered up by Travolta wannabe Zipper (Scott Sterling Hill) seem innocuous and just slightly off-center. As do most of the other characters, including the castle steward, Mr. Primm (Skip Clopton); the title character, Princess Aurora (Courtney Cochetas); her parents, King Jolly (Andrew Piper) and Queen Merry (Lynn Grasberg); the palace maid, Velcro (Terrianne Steinhauer-Heyer); an evil magician, Deadly Nightshade (Allen P. McCowan); a fairy queen, Fairy Snowdrop (China Tresemer); and our hero, Prince Nicholas (Jonathan Oldham).

Midway through Act One, however, it's clear that King Jolly should have long ago exchanged titles with his wife; that Nicholas has more interest in rollerblading and looking pretty than getting it on with the benign Aurora; that Nightshade should be dressed in leather and chains and armed with a whip instead of a collection of curses and spells; that his sidekick really does want Nightshade to slide a drumstick between his buttocks while all of us watch; that Zipper is capable of delivering the same unfunny line over and over again; that Mr. Primm is going to take an inordinate interest in Nanny Fanny's increasingly garish getups; that the actress portraying Snowdrop has more grace than all the other performers put together; and, above all, that the director has failed to apply any unifying sense of style to the performers' tiresome shtick.

Things don't improve during Act Two. One actor serves up the question, "Do you know what's brown and sits on a piano stool?" and then answers his own query by saying, "Beethoven's last movement." Nicholas looks and sounds like Wimpy Mouse on ice as he nasally intones, "Here I come to save the day." His less-than-magnanimous image is further eroded when he breathlessly whines, "At least I have Fairy Snowdrop on my side" -- an unintentionally hilarious remark that doesn't come as a surprise to even the most casually observant theatergoer. Nanny enters in a Monica Lewinsky-like dress, makes a cigar joke and gurgles, "You know what they say, girls. If the dress is a mess, you must confess." Zipper, Velcro and Nanny engage in an extended, entirely predictable bit about spitting fluid in each other's faces. When Aurora and Nicholas finally do unite (after one audience member heroically shouted, "Get on with it!" when the action stalled for the umpteenth time on opening night), they join in a duet that's keyed too high for either one of them -- resulting in a few sour notes to go along with the show's foul humor. To top it all off, the cast asks the audience to stand up and sit down every time they sing a word that begins with the letter "b" in "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."

This wrongheaded endeavor proves that there's a difference between a calculated send-up with a distinct point of view and one that randomly lacerates topics that should have crept into oblivion long, long ago.

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Jim Lillie

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