Theatre Review: Laguna Playhouse’s ‘Robin Hood’ a Swashbuckling Panto

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The company of “Robin Hood & Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto” at Laguna Playhouse. PHOTO CREDIT: Mason Trueblood

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

Laguna Playhouse and Bonnie Lythgoe Productions teaming up each Christmastime to produce an original holiday panto has become a tradition since launching “A Snow White Christmas” in 2015.

That makes “Robin Hood and Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto” the sixth collaboration between the storied venue and Lythgoe Family Pantos. Each show has been a delightful concoction of fable, fairy tale or famed children’s literature with vaudeville and music hall-style comedy, contemporary pop and rock music, and eye-pleasing dance numbers.

Past shows include “Peter Pan & Tinker Bell: A Pirates’ Christmas,” “Beauty and the Beast: A Christmas Rose,” “Aladdin and His Winter Wish,” and “Sleeping Beauty and her Winter Knight” and have featured celebs John O’Hurley, Marina Sirtis, Joely Fisher and Neil Patrick Harris.

(Center) Michael James Ryan, Daniel Kim and Sohm Kapila in “Robin Hood & Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto” at Laguna Playhouse. PHOTO CREDIT: Mason Trueblood

“Robin Hood” doesn’t boast any stars, but let’s face it: The presence of established celebs is essentially a concession to older audience members in productions that, while tailored for audience members of all ages, are aimed squarely at younger theatergoers.

As with every previous panto here, “Robin Hood” is a family affair, written by Kristopher Lythgoe and produced and directed by Bonnie Lythgoe.

Rife with swashbuckling heroism and derring-do, the Robin Hood legend is easier to spoof than the average fairy tale or fable – an approach previously taken many a time (eg. the Mel Brooks movie “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” or the TV series “When Things Were Rotten”).

The scant story concerns the village of Nottingham, circa the 1170s. The town’s lord has died and left no heir, so the Sheriff (Andrew Lynford) is ripping off the villagers by helping himself to their money.

(From Left to Right) Jared Machado Daniel Kim, Michael James Ryan and Tyler Shilstone star in “Robin Hood & Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto” at Laguna Playhouse. PHOTO CREDIT: Mason Trueblood

Enter a hooded good guy determined to balance the scales by robbing the Sheriff’s soldiers of their ill-gotten gains and returning the loot to its owners, who most need and deserve it. While known by various names, he comes to be called “Robin Hood” (Michael James Ryan).

The on-stage liaison between the audience and the story’s characters is Will Scarlett (Jared Machado), who propagates the eventual legend that Robin is and will be a savior to all who have been victimized by the Sheriff.

Of course, in the hands of the Lythgoes and in the best panto tradition, any dramatic or serious aspects of this story are downplayed in favor of lighthearted dialogue, humor and plot twists. The result is a cute, funny show staged with a high energy level.

(From Left to Right) James Velasco, Michael James Ryan and Andrew Lynford star in “Robin Hood & Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto” at Laguna Playhouse. PHOTO CREDIT: Mason Trueblood

The script is laden with jokes and puns that are silly and corny, which is exactly the point – but plenty are inventively funny enough to hit the bulls-eye.

To wit: The foursome of Robin, Will, Little John (Tyler Shilstone) and Friar Tuck (Daniel Kim) struggle to devise a motto for their little band. The Merry Men? Nope… try “Stop the Steal.” The Sheriff taunts audience members as “an ugly lot” who “must be day-trippers from Irvine.”

Will has plenty of music hall-style jokes, as when he says “I love the way the earth rotates around the sun. It really makes my day” or asks a would-be archer, “Have you ever tried archery blindfolded? No? You don’t know what you’re missing!”

Soothsayer Will can see 800 years into the future. This irritates his pals, but opens the door for plenty of anachronistic references – as when he predicts the eventual merger of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, which will be called “You twit face!”

Even the Sheriff has his share of flippant remarks, as when he tells Maid Marion (Sohm Kapila) she’s the perfect bride-to-be for him because of her name: “You’re ‘made’ for ‘marryin’.” Of course, she’s in no hurry to be wedded to this self-satisfied creep.

Jo Osmond (center) stars in “Robin Hood & Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto” at Laguna Playhouse. PHOTO CREDIT: Mason Trueblood

Unable to extract the hooded stranger’s identity from the villagers, the Sheriff threatens the cancellation of Christmas. Will exhorts us to boo this nasty man, and if you’re in the audience, you’ll have a blast lustily obliging.

Ryan and Kapila are pretty wholesome overall, their goodness embodied in their light, lightly heroic British dialects, and Machado, whose Will has the lion’s share of stage time, is ever personable and likable.

The antithesis of Robin – and of pretty much everyone around him – the Sheriff is smug, condescending, greedy and cruel, exulting in the fact that his Christmas Day wedding to Marion will be “all paid for by you rotten peasants.”

Lynford relishes his role’s villainy, using a British delivery that’s distinctively (and aptly) more forceful than the story’s heroes. This is one bad guy who isn’t especially fearsome, but as with all pantos, he isn’t meant to be.

As the Sherwood Sprite, a winged fairy who serves as the story’s narrator, young Jo Osmond is spirited and ebullient, and the cast is bolstered by a sextet of supporting players who portray various villagers, soldiers and handmaidens.

The solid musical content, furnished by JamJor Music, includes “Disco Inferno,” “More Than a Woman,” “If I Can’t Have You,” “Bad Girls” and “I’m So Excited.”

“A Fifth of Beethoven” provides the perfect counterpoint to a swordfight between Robin’s men and the Sheriff’s, and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is performed as an audience singalong with cue cards prompting us with clever new lyrics.

Each performance pulls some audience kids into the act. They’re brought up on stage, and Will banters with them for a minute or two, sending them back to their seats with goodie-laden gift bags as their reward.

“Robin Hood” is as easy on the eyes as to the ears: Mason Trueblood’s choreography adds plenty of visual interest, Tiffany Maxwell’s lovely colorful period costumes have pastel hues that lend a fairy-tale sheen, and Ian Wilson’s sets have the appropriate storybook look.

Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through December 29. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $36 to $71 ($26 to $61 children ages 2 through 14). Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.org.

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