Puss in Boots

Everyone likes a rags to riches story and fairy tales provide us with many. In the past they were used as a means of teaching us something about social convention and the appropriate response or moral behaviours.

Not so much panto, which bases itself on the basic plotline of a story and simply uses it to make light entertainment. Masquerade’s panto offering this year managed to do both by sticking to the formula of a rough diamond making its fortune in the world. However, this year’s hero is not Dick Whittington, but Jenny. Yes the Miller has a cat and three daughters, and his youngest is more intrepid and feisty than the wimpy, original Dick ever was.

With a positive take on girl power, and a heroine completely unimpressed by the initially silly Prince Pompadour (Anton Saliba), who speaks in rhyming couplets, a great scripting feat by Malcolm Galea, Puss in Boots is a lot more than just about the crafty, magical cat. Jenny (Tina Rizzo) made a fun and very likeable protagonist, in spite of a lacklustre rendition of Defying Gravity – which was transposed from a soprano to a low alto voice and suffered for it. While her princely counterpart came across as an inept and insecure young man, hiding behind a stately bravado and silly rhymes; which somehow endeared the audience to their mismatched union as two misfits in a world run by his father King Trumpadon (Joseph Zammit) in an orange sendup of Donald Trump to rival Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live character.

He simply spoofed Trump’s ignorance and eccentricities to show him up for the orange buffoon he really is

What I liked about Zammit’s interpretation was its literalness. He simply spoofed Trump’s ignorance and eccentricities to show him up for the orange buffoon he really is. Saliba and Rizzo embark on a crazy adventure along with Trumpadon and his wife Queen Shalayna (Malcolm Galea). A great pseudo-pepe Dame who is equally snobby and crass. A fact pointed out by the reluctant narrator of the story, Fairy Fafnee (Analise Cassar), who looks down on the ─žamalli who constantly  seem to surround her.

It is becoming a bit of an unacknowledged tradition in Maltese panto for the scriptwriters to play the Dame, thus writing the production around themselves and the wacky character they create.

In Galea’s case, the script was rather long, with a couple of scenes which could have done with some editing as it resulted in an unnecessarily stretched plotline. However, the content itself was great – blending the right mix of panto zaniness with political humour and digs at local problems, while keeping it upbeat and funny in its own right.

Jenny (Tina Rizzo) made a fun and very likeable protagonist.Jenny (Tina Rizzo) made a fun and very likeable protagonist.

What Galea has mastered is a way to script good lines for himself, without outshining the rest of the cast – creating solid characters who stand out as well as his does.

Thanks to director Anthony Bezzina’s meticulous eye for detail, supported by Simona Mamo’s costume design and Marco Bartolo’s simple, effective storybook set, the backdrop was solid and the chorus shone under Kris Spiteri’s musical direction with Kristina Zammit Frendo’s vocal training and sharp choreography by Elena Zammit. Dame Shalayna’s outrageous wigs were provided by Michael and Guy and literally drew the audience’s focus to her zany persona.

Cassar’s Fairy Fafnee was matched by her baddie counterpart, Ogre Gledingfield (Joe Depasquale) as both were very well-cast and naturally spoofed their namesakes rather well – Cassar by being elitist and Depasquale by behaving in a very different way to his political caricature. The good and bad sidekicks also gave a good performance with Gianni Selvaggi’s musketeer-in-training, Woodhouse having more stage time and therefore better exposure than the ratty, goblin duo Mossack (Michela Mifsud) and Fonseca (Michela Farrugia), whose characters were rather flat compared to Selvaggi’s.

The two characters who stole the show were of course Katherine Brown’s excellent Puss, who was matched by an equally strong Azmali Parada (Stephen Oliver) – the evil mastermind, who makes playing a panto baddy aspirational.

These two actors clearly carried the show as much as the Dame. I wasn’t too impressed by the fill-in-the-blanks song sheet this year. I much prefer a competitive sing-along. However, the other song choices were contemporary, enjoyable and went down well with an enthusiastic audience.

What worked well with Puss in Boots was that it fit the panto schematic, while still having a contemporary edge, keeping the magic of Christmas farce going without compromising on likeable characters.

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