The once and future King Arthur has never had it as good (or as goofy) as he’s having it these days and nights at People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern. Claiming the right to the sword Excalibur, fighting dragons, and acquiring the wisdom to become king used to be a lot of work. At the world premiere of the People’s Light musical “Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon,” it’s a lot of chuckles.
And why not? Just look who young Arthur (Jon Mulhearn) hangs around with: his adoptive dad (Tom Teti) and stuck-up brother (Alex Bechtel), a doofus magician (the wonderful ChristopherPatrick Mullen), two of the world’s clumsiest knights (Mary Tuomanen and John Jarboe), and a protective owl (Susan McKey). And more: a stag with a perspective on change (Marc LeVasseur), a truth-seeking fish (Liz Filios) and a garrulous jackass who promotes public service (Jake Blouch).
And if Arthur needs even more protection from the evil, rotten and thoroughly curvaceous power-monger Morgana (Kim Carson), he may get it from the deliciously overdressed Dame of the Lake (Mark Lazar, who has the franchise on cross-dressing holiday roles).
People’s Light is arguably the nation’s most prolific creator of a special breed of theater, the panto — a Christmastime musical at which audiences are prodded to cheer, jeer, and become part of the show. “Arthur” is the stage company’s latest panto and it includes all the requirements of the form: a chase (here, a little one, more like a search), a male playing an over-the-top female, at least one actor playing an animal, a twist on a tale we all know (or know about) and a call for honor.
It’s a British arts tradition, and right now actors are playing animal roles and chasing each other in twisted tales all over England – and in Malvern. “Arthur” is two hours of sweet, airy fun, a care-free respite from all the detail work and stress that goes into making holidays at the year’s end.
People’s Light company members Samantha Bellomo and Pete Pryor wrote the jaunty script and Michael Ogborn, who has scored a handful or so of People’s Light pantos, composed the bouncy music and lyrics for this one. (Sings Arthur: “Winning the battle conclusively, I’ll finally make some use of me!”)
Master puppet designer Robert Smythe created an appropriately imposing dragon that two actors operate, and Marie Anne Chiment’s costumes are positively Medieval Chic. Longtime People’s Light set designer James F. Pyne Jr. keeps things simple for a musical that romps all over the place, and when he gets underwater, the effects — supplied by both his set and the actors — are lovely.
There’s plenty of doubling up in a show that has many characters – beginning offstage with Pryor, who co-wrote “Arthur” and also directs it. Five of the dozen actors handle multiple roles, some with major costume changes. This panto has several standouts, but the show ultimately belongs to Christopher Patrick Mullen’s magician Merlyn, a loopy portrayal that must be irreverent to magicians everywhere.
The great writer T. H. White gave the world the King Arthur novels. They were collected in the anthology “The Once and Future King” and have been appropriated many time since, notably by Disney. White was British, and he surely enjoyed more than a few pantos in his lifetime. With the People’s Light appropriation, he may be rolling in his grave – with laughter.
“Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon” runs through Jan. 11 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. 611-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.