That particularly English form of musical entertainment called “panto” is back for the holidays in Dale Sandlin and Steve Apostolina’s “Frosty Fractured Fable” The Snow Queen, now keeping audiences in stitches at South Pasadena’s Fremont Centre Theatre under the imaginative, effervescent direction of McKerrin Kelly.

 Like any panto worth its name, The Snow Queen takes a familiar children’s tale as its point of departure and blends in elements of English Music Hall, contemporary pop culture, audience participation, and double entendre humor.  It also features characters who talk directly to the audience and insure our active, vocal participation, a slew of countless contemporary references and bawdy jokes, and a “Panto Dame,” in the case of The Snow Queen the one-and-only R. Christofer Sands in drag.

Setting The Snow Queen’s plot in motion is the arrival of Widow Twanky (Sands), her son Kai (Randy Wade Kelley), and her adopted daughter Gerda (Renée Brna) in the Alpine town of Spitzbergen, whose sinuses are reputedly the cleanest in the world thanks to the townsfolk’s habit of welcoming strangers to their midst with torrents of saliva.

 Mayor Hoeker (Sandlin) explains the villagers’ plight to the Twanky family. “We live on a diet made of bitterness and sturgeon.” More to the point, “We live under a queen whose fist is made of solid ice.” The queen in question is of course the titular Snow Queen, an ice-cold monarch in the habit of riding through town and tearing it apart in search of some mysterious “lost treasure,” and woe befall any who stand in her way. (As one townsperson explains it, “In her anger, she kidnaps our people, and turns them into snow creatures for her evil army!”)

Meanwhile down in hell, El Diablo himself, aka Beelzebub, aka “Bub” (Al Rodrigo) has his own set of problems, primarily how to find a repairman to put back together the shattered pieces of his magic mirror. “It was my greatest invention since the HMO,” Bub informs us before making a deal with The Snow Queen  to use her magic to piece the mirror back together within three days time. Fail, and “that which you seek, that which you love most will be destroyed! Succeed and your long search will be over.”

 Other characters include The Snow Queen’s hapless henchgal Renni (Kelly),  a reindeer who finds herself falling head over hooves in love with Bub’s hapless henchguy Scorch (Marc Copage).

Last but not least is the mysterious Highwayman (Michael Gregory), who years before was “set upon by a band of rowdy cutthroats, all of whom were named Roger for reasons I’d deeply regret finding out about later,” and was then whacked on the head and taken aboard their pirate ship, the result of which remains a pesky case of amnesia.

If you didn’t get all that, no matter, since what sets The Snow Queen apart from, say, Walt Disney’s Snow White, is not just its wackier, more convoluted than usual plot, but the way co-creators Sandlin and Apostolina have adapted it as panto, the genre’s wild and crazy conventions making their confection as laugh-out-loud hilarious as a fairy tale can be.

 Audience participation is an absolute must, with Widow Twanky instructing us from the get-go to boo and hiss whenever the “bad and marginally beautiful” Snow Queen enters, or to throw rolled-up white socks (distributed along with programs) at snowmen whenever we see them. We’re also told than whenever someone says “That’s just a big bluff,” the right half of us are to respond with a collective “Oh no it’s not!” while those on the left shout back “Oh yes it is!”  (Naturally we do as we are told.)

As for those pop references, among the celebs whose names get dropped along the way are Honey Boo Boo, Cher, Jay Leno, Adam Sandler, and Snooki. None other than Dick Cheney himself makes an appearance (in hell, of course). As for this past year’s most talked about dance craze, Gangnam Style shows up early on, appropriately rechristened Spitzbergen Style.

Then there are those double entendres, a good many of them referring to Widow Twanky’s considerable derriere, each one of which will whoosh right over the heads of the tiny tots. Take for instance Widow Twanky’s “You like my outfit? Truth be told, I haven’t had a good frock in quite some time.” Later, when Gerda discovers a clearly marked “Secret Entrance,” Widow Twanky responds with “Please don’t speak about Momma’s portals in front of our gentlemen friend.” Adult fans of ‘70s TV sitcoms will figure out right away the nature of Kai and Gerda’s brother-stepsister relationship when Widow Twanky describes them as “the Greg and Marcia Brady of fairytale land.” Widow Twanky’s first big music number has her celebrating her very own “Something More,” the dragtastic Sands informing us with a hand gesture down below, “I may be just a dame, but as you can clearly see, I’ve got something more.” Oh, and the gala party thrown annually by The Snow Queen is known far and wide as The Blue Ball, a condition young Kai knows all too well due to his frequent proximity to the buxom Gerda, who carries her milk bottles a la Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help it.

 Not surprisingly, the entire cast seem to be having the time of their lives, and since Sandlin and Apostolina have assembled some of the very best triple-threats in town, so do we.

No man plays woman more fabulously than Sands, Ovation Award winner for the transvestite Joseph/Josephine in the Celebration Theatre’s 2001 Pinafore! (and winner of three individual Scenies for more recent drag roles in Shanghai Moon and Chicago and for his unforgettable Adolfo Pirelli in TheProdCo’s Sweeney Todd). Not surprisingly, Sands steals every scene he’s in as Widow Twanky, with just about everyone in the cast gives him a run for his money.

There’s no more captivating young musical theater leading lady in L.A. than Brna, whose busty, bustiered Gerda allows the Scenie winner to be saucier and sexier than the role of The Wedding Singer’s Julia allowed, but every bit as appealing. Kelley’s boyish Kai is infectiously likeable too, as he quite rightly lusts over stepsis, and both Brna and Kelley have terrific pipes to match their comedic chops.

 Speaking of pipes, giving the coloratura Sands a run for his money is big-voiced belter Pennington, whose Snow Queen has more than a bit of the classic soap villainess in her, that is if you were to combine Alexis Carrington, Snow White’s Evil Queen, and the much married Erica Kane Martin Brent Cudahy Chandler Montgomery Montgomery Chandler Marick Marick Montgomery  into one snow-frosted package.

Rodrigo’s womanizing, Spanish-accented Bub, Copage’s sassy, lovestruck Scorch, Kelly’s cute, quirky Renni, Gregory’s delightfully dimwitted Highwayman, and Sandlin’s stellar triple-turn as Mayor Hoeker, Sarge, and a yuletide favorite whose identity will not be revealed here, are each and every one a winner, as is The Snow Queen’s very busy ensemble: Kasey Camp, Charles F. Martinez, Amerlin Morse, and Tim Polzin, who change characters and costumes almost as often as the abovementioned Erica Kane has changed husbands.

Sandlin and Apostolina’s book and lyrics are inspired lunacy, and Apostolina’s melodies catchy ones. Choreographer Nancy Dobbs Owen confections numerous lively dance numbers, most notably The Snow Queen’s answer to the “Hokey Pokey,” entitled the “Reindeer Bop.” (“It’s just a hoof to the left, then a hoof to the right, just shake out your tail girl and bop it all night!”)

Providing sensational onstage musical backup are Dean Mora And The Icebreakers as the Snow Queen Band: musical director Mora on piano, Apostolina on guitar, Eric Gotthelf on bass, and Ivan Lapchinski on drums.

Fred Duer’s storybook scenic design is simple but effective, and expertly lit by Bosco Flanagan. Wig master Byron Batista has created fabulous dos, in particular for Widow Twanky and The Snow Queen. Best of all are Curtis-Jerome’s dazzling bevy of costumes you don’t see in just any fairytale, with special snaps due his snowmen and reindeer suits, The Snow Queen’s icy white gowns and jewels, and most especially Widow Twanky’s frocks, particularly her stuffed animal-frestooned hooded cape. Oh, and keep an eye out for the names of Bub’s evil helpers, seemingly inspired by Enron, Halliburton, Merck, and Monsanto. (Thanks to Kevin Delin for noticing this detail.)

Matthew Sandlin is stage manager. Grady Hutt is technical director.

 About as crowd-pleasing a holiday show as any theatergoer could ask for, The Snow Queen is likely to be filling every one of the Fremont Centre Theatres 75-seats throughout its December run. As to whether it’s a kids’ show for adults or an adult show for kids, it’s actually a bit of both, and one that anyone in search of a couple of hours of feel-good fun won’t want to miss.

Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
November 30, 2012

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