You could tell the audience was hooked the minute the Potato Fairy waltzed on stage. Or rather, the second time she waltzed on, after prepping the crowd to scream and clap as if Justin Bieber himself were there.
It was your typical set-up for an English pantomime, where the fourth wall tumbles down and characters indulge in as many silly gags as they can get away with. And Centerstage Theatre’s “Jack and the Beanstalk” proves that this Federal Way company has got panto down to a fine art, reaching new heights of silliness with excellent timing, clever puppetry and mostly good singing.
It’s the second time Centerstage has done “Jack,” and their eighth pantomime overall. The experience shows: All the leads handle their ridiculous roles with panache, the pace is swift but not hectic, and the gags are so natural they’re now part of the plot itself. In the pants role of Jack is Anna Marie Clausen (last year’s P.C. Pongo), giving the hero a perky enthusiasm (and the kind of shorts-and-tights outfit that has sold panto tickets since the 19th century). As the heroine Princess May, Kate Alden brings the same slightly klutzy forthrightness she brought to last year’s “Aladdin,” sparklingly idealistic in an equally sparkly lilac dress. Jack’s homely brother Billy (Joshua Williamson) is likeable, though he could have been a bit more cluelessly funny.
But the star of the show was Alan Bryce as their mother Dame Trot, resplendent in poufy blouse, huge auburn wig, pink cheeks and enough blue eyeshadow to make ABBA proud. Bryce, as a trained actor and Englishman, understands panto deeply and it’s his smooth comic timing and subtle audience jabs that carry these shows.
Brynne Geiszler, as the Vegetable Fairy (with some pretty nifty carrot shoes) that assists Jack and his gang to defeat the giant, combines earnest and adorable with a rich, powerful voice that helps in the ensemble songs, while as the villain Hefferlumphenstein (no, they can’t pronounce it either) panto newcomer Brock Madden hits a stylish, vampire-like note, with a pleasant, clear tenor that flows easily into a rock falsetto.
As the plot moves from familiar (cow, beans, stalk, giants) to interesting (a cheese dairy, a princess abduction, zombie air-pilots), the jokes from British writer Paul Hendy just get better and better. There are digs at everyone from Bristol Palin to Rush Limbaugh, and puns old and new — mostly very cheesy (ahem). The five-minute gag on pop band names from Dame Trot and Billy is hilariously delivered, and the cover songs go from “I Need a Hero” to a rather noble “Les Miserables” moment as the Act I closer. The dancing is tight, thanks to dance captain Katherine Jett (who also makes half of a terrific tap-dancing cow).
And there’s all the usual audience participation, from cute kids helping on stage to that hapless guy in the second row. (Hint: Be very careful where you sit, fellows.) As well as cheering the fairy and booing the villain, you’ll get the chance to throw giant peas, take a selfie with a princess, sing nonsense songs, and find out why a particular black bench is so important. Over eight years Centerstage has built a panto-loving audience that knows just what to do and how loudly to do it, and the “Jack” cast builds on the energy with glee.
Only one thing wasn’t great about Saturday’s opening night, and that was the sound. From vocal mics not working to huge imbalances between band (otherwise competent) and singers, the sound was amateur, and for the first half, the singers were exposed without enough backing harmony, producing some really out-of-tune belting. Things improved in Act II, but with a intimate theater like Centerstage, this is something that needs to be fixed.
Visually, though, “Jack” is a delight — watercolor farm backdrops, a stage framed by giant hairy vine-entwined legs and a strategically placed vine leaf overhead — and the appearance of the 10-foot giant puppets, with their bemused sculpted bobble-heads, is entrancing. The kids in the chorus make adorable villagers, magic hens and harps, and director Roger Curtis brings the whole thing to a smooth, funny finish.
It’s rare to find a live holiday show that everyone in the family will like, from surly teens to toddlers to grandparents. “Jack and the Beanstalk” is that show. Don’t miss it.